Practitioner Corner: Foods that Protect You from the Sun

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A man standing in a field with his arms outstretched, enjoying the sun's rays while benefiting from the protective foods.

young man rest on wheat fieldAs a functional medicine and nutritional endocrinology practitioner, I see the power of food as medicine in action all the time.  It's important for optimal immunity, detoxification and digestive function.  It's critical for hormone balance.  It's also important for protection from the damaging effects of over-exposure to the sun.  

I've written before about spices that help your body have a more efficient digestion. I've also written about foods that keep blood sugar from spiking. Still others are good for your heart health or even your brain function!

Let's take a look at food can protect against the damaging effects of over-exposure to the sun!

Before we talk about the foods that help protect the from UV damage,  I need to share the dangers of the sunscreen products that are commonly used. 

You need natural sunshine, but use the right sunscreen and common sense

Deadly Danger SignMany of the lotions, make-up, sunscreen, and other personal care products contain alarming number of toxins. You can do a little research on personal products and sunscreen to best understand how toxic they are. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) website is a great resource to bookmark.  I recomemend their 2016 guide to the healthiest sunscreens on the market.

Use the EWG site to find a mineral sunscreen containing zinc oxide.  Uncoated zinc oxide effectively blocks and reflects, rather than absorbs, the sun’s rays.  Three are a number of natural sunscreens containing zionc oxide that are low in toxins.

View of happy young family having fun on the beachWhile it's important to get sun exposure daily for Vitamin D synthesis.  It's also important to avoid over-exposure, to prevent the damaging effects of excessive UV radiation. Appropriate use of natural sunscreen can be an important part of protection from the sun.  What most people don't realize is that certain foods can provide natural protection against sunburn and the damaging effects of over-exposure to the sun's UV radiation.

The top 5 foods that can help your body enjoy the sun!

Red, pink, and orange fruits and veggies

Lycopene is a natural pigment and a super antioxidant. It is found in tomatoes and other red, pink Ripe red tomato. Macro shot studio isolated.and orange produce.  It has been shown to reduce UV-induced free radicals and provide protection against sunburn. In one study, after 10-12 weeks of tomato-derived lycopene intervention, a decrease in the sensitivity towards UV-induced erythema (reddening due to light sensitivity) was observed.

Besides tomatoes, other good sources are watermelon, lycopene, sweet red peppers, asparagus, and purple cabbage.

Beta-carotene/provitamin A foods are yellow and green foods that are beneficial for the skin.  Beta-carotene has also been linked to reduced reactions to sunburn. Think about it – carotenoids are involved in the light-protecting system in plants, after all! As micronutrients in the diet, they are distributed into light-exposed tissues where they provide systemic photo-protection.  Many years of exposure to the sun can result in photo-damage and photo-aging of the skin, as well as increasing the incidences of skin cancer. Seemingly, beta-carotene acts in humans like it does in the plants themselves, protecting against too much light.

Orange carrotIn fact, one food rich in beta-carotene – carrots – has been studied for possibly even reversing the sun’s damage to the skin! In that Korean study, the women who received a daily dose of 30 milligrams of beta-carotene  – which is the equivalent of about 6 carrots – for three months, displayed both protected and repaired cells.  Another interesting fact about carrots is that they also contain lycopene!

Winter squash and pumpkin are also an important food source of carotenoids.  Recent research studies have documented just how fantastic they can be when it comes to these key antioxidants. For some groups of study participants, winter squash turns out to be their primary food source of alpha-carotene and beta-carotene.  For lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-cryptoxanthin – three other health-supportive carotenoids – winter squash is again among the top food sources for these important nutrients in several studies. Pumpkin has other great nutrients for the skin including vitamin C, zinc, and alpha-hydroxyl acids, which can reduce the signs of aging when applied to the skin.  This makes it truly food for your skin as you apply it as a mask!

Another advantage to eating foods high in beta-carotene is that it can actually add some color to the skin. 

Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids

Organic healthy fats and essential fatty acids are really needed to amplify the benefits of the sun’s rays.  Omega-3 fatty acids have incredible anti-inflammatory powers. Research suggests these compounds can help protect cells from free radical damage like that caused by the sun. Another study found that adding omega-3 rich foods to the diet, or taking omega-3 supplements can help prevent some types of skin cancer.   Micro-algae and seaweed, flax, hemp, and chia seeds are all rich omega-3 sources.

Most Americans do not get enough omega-3 fats and eat way too many omega 6 fats because they are so many processed foods.  I spend a lot of time with my clients discussing ways for them to change their ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats. It should be close to 3 to 1.  Most Americans have a ratio more like 25 to 1 or even higher!   Here’s a fun chia pudding recipe loaded with omega-3s.

A study published in 2011 in Experimental Dermatology suggests that omega-3 fats exert benefits on the skin relating to potential photo-protective effects.  The research suggested that the omega-3 components are capable of reducing UV-induced inflammation in human skin; and potentially offering protection against photo-immunosuppression, photo-carcinogenesis, photo-aging, and photo-sensitivity disorders.

The study also suggested that combining dietary and topical sunscreen measures may optimize human skin protection from sunlight.

Dark chocolate

I love it when science supports my vices! Actually, dark chocolate has long-been known to contain amazing antioxidants called flavonoids.  Flavonoids may help protect the body from sun damage and improve some types of skin damage, including UV-induced sunburns.  Pure, unprocessed, and unadulterated chocolate has 4 times the amount of phenols and catechins as teas, and these compounds protect the skin against sunburn.

Cruciferous VeggiesBroccoli pile

Cruciferous vegetables have so many benefits.  In addition to being important in hormone balance, detoxification and gut health,  they are packed with antioxidants. Some, like broccoli, also contain sulforaphane, which is linked to increased protection for the skin from the sun.

Additionally, lab studies have shown that sulforaphane can stimulate enzymes that detoxify carcinogens before they damage cells, thus they can protect from UV damage from the sun. Read all about the many benefits of cruciferous veggies here.


Lettuce Varieties in Rustic BasketLeafy greens, such as dandelion greens, beet greens, spinach, kale, chard, and watercress are also good to emphasize as they contain anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, like polyphenols.  They also are rich in carotenoid compounds called xanthophylls, which may naturally protect the skin from sun damage.  All greens are rich in chlorophyll, which purifies the blood of toxins.  In addition, blood-purifying herbs are useful.  Some to include are dandelion root, golden seal root, chaparral leaves, pansey flowers, echinacea root, yellow dock root, burdock root, red clover blossoms, horehound leaves, and poke root.

Ready to help your clients, patients, loved ones, and yourself?

If you are ready to learn even more about digestive health and nutritional endocrinology, consider applying for my Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioner Training.”  You'll learn to understand the macro- and micro-nutrients and how they interact with hormones and body functions, plus you'll learn how to work with appetite, digestion, sleep, and blood sugar issues. Learn more and apply here Like much as I have shared here, we interweave food, nutrition, and herbs within our course.

COMMENTS? Have you found a favorite clean sunscreen to recommend to others? Do you have food recommendations to add to my list? Please share if you do!

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