lYesterday was the first really summer-like day of the year ... and while my family and I reveled in the warmth and the sun, it prompted discussions of sunscreens. My kids were asking questions about the chemicals in the sunscreens, exploring the risks of the gunk vs. the risks of sun damage - they are the children of a naturopathic doctor afterall ... they know to inquire about such things! So here are some thoughts and resources:
Sun exposure is clearly linked to the risk of skin cancer, which is the most common type of cancer in Canada. While all types of skin cancer are treatable, they can also be aggressive and deadly. Malignant melanoma is one of the most aggressive types of cancer. Here is more info on melanoma; bottom line: talk to your doctor if you have any new skin spots. The earlier skin cancer is identified, the better the prognosis.
Sun exposure is also beneficial for a couple of reasons. Vitamin D is made in the body in response to sun exposure. Canadians are notoriously deficient in vitamin D due to lack of sun exposure during long stretches of shorter, colder days. This is possibly complicated by active efforts to reduce sun exposure, since efforts to reduce UV exposure may contribute to vitamin D deficiencies (though this is controversial); however, some studies have demonstrated that Canadians are spending more time in the sun, not less, and not necessarily with a corresponding increase in sunscreen use. Ironically, vitamin D deficiency itself is a risk factor for malignant melanoma; it has thus been suggested that inadequate exposure to the sun may also be a risk factor for skin cancer. It's hard to elucidate exactly what the ideal amount of exposure might be, since individuals have unique susceptibilities to both sun damage and vitamin D deficiency based on pigmentation, age, latitude and genetic variations. Vitamin D needs can also be met through food and supplementation.
Sunlight is also important for regulation of both mood and circadian rhythms. This may not require direct exposure of the skin to UV radiation, although some studies have acknowledged the presence of a circadian clock in the skin, a fascinating mechanism by which organisms (including humans) may regulate behaviour and immune function. This neat study convincingly shows that an indoor lifestyle disrupts our natural circadian pathways, with implications on cognitive function and mental health; more exposure to natural (vs. artificial) light may be a more appropriate approach to circadian regulation.
Acknowledging that some sun exposure has benefit, the connection of excessive exposure - particularly the kind that results in burns - with skin cancer should prompt caution. Kids are particularly vulnerable, so caregivers should both be vigilant about protecting them AND setting a good example of safe sun practices themselves (not cool to wrestle sunscreen on your child if you're not wearing it too!). There are a variety of excellent ways to minimize the risk of skin damage from UV radiation, including avoiding midday sun, covering up with long sleeves, hats, sunglasses and umbrellas, and wearing sunscreen!
But what about those chemicals?? The Canadian Cancer Society argues that chemicals in sunscreens are safe, and they very well may be. But perhaps there are some options that are better than others? A quick guide of things to consider:
- Oxybenzone: this is a common active ingredient in sunscreens; the concern with this one is allergy or immunosensitivity; best to avoid if an alternative is available
- Octinoxate: another common UV-filter with concern of toxicity; this one more concerning for its potential hormone disruption
- Fragrance: while not specific to sunscreens, fragrance is a catch-all term for any artificial scent added to personal care products; because there is no requirement to be more precise in labeling, a consumer has no way of knowing if the chemicals used are safe or not; best to always avoid
Mineral sunscreens work differently than chemical ones. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on the surface of the skin and reflect radiation off, rather than being absorbed the way chemical filters are. It means that sunscreens containing these ingredients are thick and white, and not always appreciated by the wearer, to which my kids can attest! One option is to look for sunscreens that contain a blend of chemical and mineral ingredients, and that do not use oxybenzone or octinoxate. The Environmental Working Group has a very comprehensive review of options if you're looking for more guidance!
Be careful too of SPF claims - regardless of how high your SPF is, if you're using sunscreen, apply a lot and apply often ... there is some suggestion that folks who wear sunscreen may actually be at a higher risk of skin cancer ... not because the sunscreen causes cancer, but because it is applied incorrectly and causes a false sense of security (resulting in more time spent in the sun inadequately protected).
One more thing to ponder ... UV exposure causes skin cancer by damaging the genetic material of skin cells. This occurs in part due to the generation of free radicals and reactive oxygen species. Our cells have mechanisms to neutralize these free radicals before they cause irreparable damage, particularly when we provide the right ingredients for these mechanisms in the form of nutritional antioxidants! A diet rich in antioxidants, including brightly coloured fruits and veggies, abundant herbs and spices, and flavonoid-rich green tea - even dark chocolate! - may protect our skin from damage due to UV radiation (along with other lifestyle-induced cancer promoters). So in addition to moderate sun exposure and thoughtful selection and use of sunscreens, here is even more rationale for eating a great diet!
Have fun in the sun!
As promised, over the next few weeks, I'll share some thoughts about designing a detoxification plan (for real this time!). While you wait, here's a little quiz to see what kind of emphasis is right for you! Let me know what you came up with and I'll help you make a plan! Enjoy!
I recently held a workshop at my clinic and my local library to chat about the top habits that can promote good health (and thanks to all of you who responded to my survey!). None of this is rocket science, but these behaviours go a really long way to keeping everyone in your family at their best. It can be tricky sometimes to stay on top of making good lifestyle choices; for each of these habits, I encourage you to consider if you're doing well, or if you could use some work. Consider how motivated you are to make a change - even a small one. What's in your way? How could you overcome whatever obstacles are preventing you from being at your best? Start small - make one small, tangible and measurable change for the better and see how it feels! Enjoy!
1. Eat more fruits and veggies
Increasing fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods increases fiber (critical for good digestive function), improves satiety (helpful for moderate caloric intake), increases anti-oxidants (necessary to reduce cell damage and aging), and offsets the consumption of less healthy options. Aim for at least 7 servings of brightly-coloured fruits and veggies daily!
2. Drink more water (or herbal tea)
Minor dehydration leads to sluggishness, brain fog, constipation and irritability. Drinking more water (coffee, juice, pop and alcohol don’t count) boosts cognitive and physical performance, clears the mind, elevates energy, promotes detoxification and helps maintain a healthy weight. Try keeping a refillable water bottle with you that you aim to drain at least twice per day. Check out my recent post on the subject for more inspiration!
3. Get outside
Time spent outside reduces stress, increases physical activity, and nourishes environmental stewardship. It may also support our natural symbiosis with microorganisms, which is good for our immune systems - especially the kids’. Aim for at least 30 minutes outside daily. Check out David Suzuki's 30x30 Challenge!
4. Go to bed
We all have different needs for sleep, but getting what our bodies need is important for stress management, immune system function, healthy body composition, mood and mental health. Try to have a consistent bed- and wake-time, create an optimal sleep environment (dark, comfortable, quiet), and keep screens out of the bedroom! Take a look at the recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation for your sweet spot!
5. Move your body
Nothing is more critical to good health than physical activity. From promoting healthy body composition, to encouraging detoxification and elimination, to improving cognitive function, it’s tough to do too much. Aim for 30-60 min of moderate to vigorous physical activity (get your heartrate up, break a sweat) every day, and increase from there. Check out the Canadian guidelines - how are you doing??
6. Detoxify your stuff
We are swimming in sea of over 80,000 industry-made chemicals, many of which are known to be harmful to our bodies, and many more which have not even been tested for safety. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of environmental toxins. Choosing alternatives to plastics (think food packaging and toys), fragranced personal-care items (visit www.ewg.org/skindeep/ for more), and industrial-strength cleaning products (vinegar and baking soda work miracles!), you’ll be giving your body an enormous break! Once again, Suzuki for the win!
7. Create space for mindfulness
In a world bombarded by social media, sensationalized news reports and high-paced schedules, a little bit of mindfulness goes a long way. Purposefully paying attention to the present experience has myriad benefits to all facets of health. Practice moving/eating/sitting/breathing mindfully every day until it becomes a more natural and automatic part of daily being. Kids respond really well to this - try youtubing “mindfulness”, with or without “kids” and see what pops up!
8. Touch someone
We all need physical contact. We take it for granted in infants and children, but our need for touch doesn’t decrease as we get older. Touch impacts our hormones and immune systems in important ways that are necessary for good health. Hold hands. Hug someone. Caress a shoulder. Go for a massage.
9. Have a sense of purpose
Purpose is one of the most important aspects of psychological well-being. Stress is more tolerable when we feel there is a point to the task. Feeling appreciated and like we are making a difference in the world actually bolsters the immune system and positively impacts mood. Caring for children, volunteering, contributing to your community, and engaging in fulfilling paid work can all satisfy the need for purpose. If you are lacking a sense of purpose, consider engaging in inventory of your values and attributes, and brainstorm how you are or could be sharing them with others.
10. Be grateful
Gratitude is one of the most impactful practices on happiness, stress management and well-being. Overwhelmed with the pressures of work? Be grateful you have a job that pays the bills. Tired of the cold winter? Be grateful you live in a country that is (generally) safe, democratic and … cold. Seek opportunities to be (genuinely) thankful to shift your outlook and increase happiness and health.
And a bonus ... Be moderate
It’s possible to go to extremes on either end of the healthy behaviour spectrum. Certainly there are some things that are just never a good idea, but some less-than-healthy behaviours are often balanced by the pleasure they bring. On the flip side, exercise, extreme diets and environmentalism can be taken too far. Unless there are unique concerns, enjoy a glass of wine or a piece of cake mindfully and intentionally - savour the pleasure of the experience. Creating space for some flexibility and compassion for yourself is important for a balanced existence.
Let me know how you're doing!
"Detox" is a word that gets thrown around these days with abandon. We are swimming in an environment laden with tens of thousands of untested and - in many cases - unregulated chemicals. And while your body has some really amazing mechanisms to process and eliminate the stuff that could harm you, in many cases, not only are we exposed to more chemicals than we evolved to deal with, we also tend to live lifestyles that impair our natural mechanisms to clear them. "Toxic burden" can result in conditions and symptoms ranging from eczema to headaches to chronic fatigue to behavioural or developmental concerns in kids. Children in particular are vulnerable to the impacts of toxin exposure due to their unique and immature biology and behaviour.
So what does "detox" mean? My goal with a detox is to minimize sources of chemicals in order to reduce what you're asking of your body, and to support the processes that it already has in place. Ideally, these strategies should be ongoing, and not necessarily only during an occasional "detox". Everyone in the family can participate in a gentle plan to promote detoxification and elimination, and spring is a great time to start! A comprehensive detox strategy includes four parts: reduction, diet, herbs and lifestyle. Let's start with the first part!
Imagine trying to clean out your garage while someone was dumping more clutter in through the back. It's not helpful to be putting more junk in while you're trying to clear it out! A household and lifestyle audit can help identify sources of chemicals.
1. Food: The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” are excellent resources to support you in choosing what produce to buy organic. Ideally animal products should be organic, since many harmful chemicals bioaccumulate in higher amounts in animals than in produce. Eating more of a plant-based diet is also helpful for detox (more to come) and cheaper, making the more expensive organic selections easier to buy! Frequently eaten foods - especially for picky kids - should be prioritized as well. And make sure you check your local fish advisories!
2. Personal care products: Many products such as lotions, creams and soaps contain chemicals which are known to be problematic in humans. The EWG Skin Deep Cosmetic Database offers an accessible and user-friendly resource (mobile-friendly!) to rate your favourite products and select healthier options. The easiest offending ingredient to spot? Fragrance!
3. Cleaning: Household cleaning should be done with homemade cleaners or products identified as being of low toxic load. Dust should be removed via vacuum or wet-mop, and hands washed frequently (especially children’s) with soap and water (no "anti-microbial" products required!). Shoes should be removed when entering the home, and any solvents or chemicals used for occupation or hobbies (and clothes worn while using them) should be kept out of the home.
4. Household objects: Plastic toys and other items should be avoided, since plastics are a significant source of concerning chemicals - for us, and the rest of the planet! A simple strategy is to slowly start replacing all your plastic food containers and bottles with glass, Pyrex or stainless steel (done all at once, this can be pricey, but slowly over time, plastic can be squeezed out). Indoor spaces should be ventilated adequately and frequently (aka open up the windows and let the sunshine in!). Clothing (especially children’s) can be purchased second-hand to reduce exposure to flame-retardants - there are many terrific second-hand stores with a great selection at very affordable prices!
5. Transit and chores: Families can be encouraged to use cars less, and instead walk, bicycle or use public transit. This not only encourages physical activity (which promotes detoxification and elimination), but reduces emissions. Elbow grease should be encouraged, reducing the use of motor-powered mowers and blowers. On days identified as hiving high levels of particulate matter, it is advised to reduce outdoor activity during peak traffic hours.
Over the next few weeks, we'll explore the other elements of promoting optimal detoxification ... and if you just can't wait to learn more, pop by and see me or drop me a line!
So you've explored some strategies for reducing toxic burden in your household. Next up - revving up your detoxification and elimination capacity! Your body knows what to do. You are constantly processing chemicals - both those that your body produces all the time through everyday processes, and those that you take in from the outside world. Our goal this spring is to give your body a little extra support to do what it naturally does anyway. All of these suggestions can be safely incorporated into anyone's life - adults and kids alike!
If you took my quiz (here it is here!), you have an idea of which of these three components is best for you to focus on. Detox support can be highly individual, so if you're stumped on where to begin, come pay me a visit!
The first step? Always start with food:
Your liver, kidneys, lungs, lymphatic organs - those tissues that play such an important role in detoxification - require optimal amounts of essential nutrients. A "detox diet" requires a colourful, plant-based, whole-foods diet, free of artificial sweeteners, refined oils and any processed foods. The more colourful your diet is (think red peppers, purple beets, dark green kale, orange carrots, blueberries, white onions, etc.), the more diverse and abundant your intake of vitamins and bioflavonoids - chemicals found in plants that our bodies can use to optimize natural processes. A diet that is plant-based includes more of these nutrients AND more fibre - absolutely essential for binding and eliminating unwanted junk via our stool. A whole-foods diet avoids processed foods that gunk up the works and lets our elimination pathways focus on clearing anything that's already in our bodies without adding more to the burden.
What does this look like? Think homemade oatmeal with ground almonds and flax seeds for breakfast, with a green smoothie on the side. A leafy green salad for lunch with grated beets, carrots and apple, walnuts and some wild salmon. Homemade sushi wraps with cucumber, red pepper, avocado and organic tofu for dinner, with miso soup and seaweed on the side. Black bean dip with carrots for snacks. And lots of water - add some fresh lemon to it! Herbal tea can enhance the process when made from plants that support detoxification ... stay tuned for more on this!
Need more tips? Bring me your diet diary and we can plan it out together.