Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Sun is Your Enemy, You Realize

This may come as a shock to you, but it shouldn't.

Sol, taiyou, tài yáng, the sun. All names used to identify the yellow dwarf star at the center of our solar system. (Even the term solar system itself was derived from the star's original Latin name!) Sure, we rely on the sun for far more on a daily basis than any mere blog post could cover, and it could be reasonably argued that we wouldn't exist if not for the sun. But the truth is - you know it as well as I do - the sun is our enemy.

Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carinoma, Melanoma. The three most common types of skin cancer. For much of human history, the sun has waged war with our very existence as a species through all forms of this particular cancer - largely suffered as a result of excessive exposure to the sun and the resulting DNA damage. Granted, skin cancer can generally be prevented through proper use of sunblock and efforts to avoid exposure to an excess of ultraviolet light. But then, we human beings are creatures of excess. We love to go outside and bake ourselves in the sunlight until we're extra crispy (Sometimes applying a secret recipe of 11 different herbs and spices for flavor), and to generally absorb every bit of the sun's rays we can. Bad idea. Perhaps, to the sun, we are the cancer.

But that's not the main focus of this post.

Last summer, director M. Night Shyamalan released yet another terrible film, The Happening, which focused on tree gas turning off the one chemical in the human brain that disabled our innate natural desire to immediately kill ourselves at all times. Because we've got a long ways to go in creating a more environmentally friendly society. Good message, terrible movie, terrible neuroscience, terrible basic concept. (If you want to make a good movie about nature taking revenge on humanity, it needs to be more of a modern day battle of Isengard from the Lord of the Rings - yes, trees uprooting themselves, walking into our cities, and beating the everloving crap out of everything. That would be a phenomenal terrible movie. (Note: As of my writing this, I'm staking my claim on this premise as my own intellectual property now. Take that, internet script thieves! You'll never have my idea that will never be made into an actual movie now!))

In reality, studies have recently indicated that excessive sunlight can increase risk of suicide - particularly as a result of the insomnia resulting from long summer days in countries like Greenland, where the sun doesn't set at all between the end of April and the end of August in parts of the country.

People like sunlight, and most tend to prefer it to the darkness of night. As such, it's a commonly held belief that suicide rates rise during fall and winter as a result of the lengthening of night and the coldness of its darkness. Constant sunlight like Greenland suffers for a significant portion of each year interferes with natural circadian rhythms. And sleep deprivation can easily wreck anyone's mental health.

When distressed, you'd be hard-pressed to find a quick fix more effective than suicide. By WHO measures, 877,000 people commit suicide every year. And for each of these deaths, 10-40 attempts are made. Puts things into perspective in regards to just how many people look for a way out each year, no?

Scientists have previously linked sleep disturbance with suicidal tendencies in adolescents and people with psychiatric disorders, though no clear findings have been made linking these issues all the way to the general populace. (Yet.)

A team of Swedish scientists studied the seasonal variation of suicides in Greenland from 1968 to 2002 and discovered that suicides tended to notably cluster in the summer - especially in the north, where the populace suffers through the aforementioned three months of incessant sunlight. Said suicides make up 82% of the yearly suicides in that region, are usually committed by young men, and are almost exclusively violent, including: shooting, hanging, and jumping from high places. These deaths accounted for nearly 95% of suicides at that time of the year.

Neuroscientific speculation is that the excessive sunlight exposure creates an imbalance in serotonin - a brain chemical linked to mood - which could lead to impulsiveness that, when paired with severe sleep deprivation, could lead to suicidal behavior. But in this case, light itself seems to just be one of many affecting factors in the tragic circumstances of suicide.

So yes, while the sun can technically be your friend and healthy for you - we all need Vitamin D, after all - it's still our enemy. We need the sun to live and maintain our health, but that which sustains us can also destroy us. Be wary of the Deathsphere! Always be wary. And wear lots of sunblock. Tanning doesn't really seem to be a good idea, either, from the health perspective. No matter how much you may like the extra color.

Yes, I'm positive you guys were just dying for another consecutive death-themed post. I'll try to find a different topic for the next one. (And try to post a bit more often again soon.)


CrazyCris said...

This post is all over the place! lol! Sun, cancer, Shyamalan, suicides... :p

Anyhow, it's a good idea to remind people of the Sun's dangers. Something I've been conscious of my whole life... I'm a redhead so... no "basking" in the sun for me! I go from carrot to tomato in no time. ;o)
Although for some silly reason I need a reminder of the Sun's potency (a reminder that I should wear sunscreen whenever I go out for a significant length of time, problem is I hate the slimy stuff!). I got my reminder last week... went out on a field trip to help out a teacher at the neighbourhood High School and my arms are RED!!! Never thought of lathering up as it wasn't hot out... forgot that the Sun is just as strong when there is a breeze or clouds.

You might also want to remind people that exposure is doubly dangerous in places with reflective surfaces: water (part. the sea), snow and ice (people get some nasty burns in Antarctica)!

Benjamin Fennell said...

It's a variety post! Lots of happy topics, clearly.

But yeah, with summer approaching and that news story having popped up recently, I thought it'd be worth writing about. I'm just naturally pale and don't come from stock that "tans" so much as bursts into flames, so I tend to avoid the sun. And I also tend to sleep through the day, so I undoubtedly have a Vitamin D deficiency myself. Something I should work on in the future.

I'm not too keen on the whole sunscreen application process myself, but then I haven't gone out enough in the summer to need it in quite a few years now. We basically stopped going to the beach in the summer by around the time I was getting into high school in the late '90s, and that sort of thing wasn't much fun for me anymore then anyway. Too much sand.

Wow, indeed. It really doesn't take much. I usually get a little singed every summer when I go out for maybe an hour or two - even if most of that time is spent indoors elsewhere - but that's about it. Not looking forward to that too much this summer, but I still need to work on getting some driving practice in, since I still don't have my license.

Also worth noting indeed. I had no idea burning was such an issue in Antarctica too. There's really no escape. (Unless you wear a haz-mat suit at all times or something, anyway.)

CrazyCris said...

I soooo get the bursting into flames part! I have to negotiate with my friends in the summer when it comes to beach days. Everyone loves them but for me they're torture!!!

Oh and burning is actually more of an issue in Antarctica (at least in summer months) than in many other places since it's smack down under the hole in the ozone layer! Ditto Australia! When I was there I noticed all the kids wearing school uniforms which included baseball caps with a flap back over the nape of their neck. And someone told me school supplies are supposed to include sunscreen...

Suggestion: stop by my place
I'm redistributing a blogging award I just got and you've been tagged! Do with it what you will! ;o)

Benjamin Fennell said...

I know exactly what you mean, haha. I don't know if or when I'll ever end up going to the beach again, as it would likely require a lot of coaxing, and I'd probably spend more time indoors than down on the beach. Though in the least, places like aquariums and marine museums seem to not be too uncommon around beaches, and those are of interest to me, anyway.

Very interesting, very interesting. That's pretty scary. The sun and heat can be bad enough here in America, but while I knew it was worse in other areas, I was never really fully conscious of just how bad it was in places like Antarctica and parts of Australia, and that it made such an impact on daily life. I'm learning new things all the time.

And thanks for the award! I'll definitely drop by your blog there. :)

CrazyCris said...

hehehe, I usually grant my friends ONE beach day per summer. Ni más, ni menos! Of course, some times I get tricked into staying longer than I plan if say we meet up at the rocky beach near my house for some snorkelling... I get all caught up with the damn fish and seaweed I inevitably go home later than planned and with burnt legs and back! (have taken to wearing a t-shirt when doing that)

Yeah, most people don't tend to think about how the sun can be different in other parts of the world. My mom got a really nasty burn shortly after my parents got married. I believe they went down to visit my uncle in Florida and my mom wouldn't put any sunscreen on or be careful because she said she never had problems with the sun. What she didn't realise is that Florida is in the tropics and so the sun's rays are much more vertical than over the Mediterranean and MUCH stronger! She learnt that lesson the hard way... When I was a kid in Mexico we had to put on 60 or 45 SPF sunscreen if we went to the pool or beach. Here in Spain I'll put on 30 at the beginning of summer and make my way down to 20 by the end (and sometimes 15 if I avoid the middle of the day). So yeah, BIG difference geographically.

As for Australia, I think the situation didn't used to be this bad. People there have really noticed the worsening of the hole in the ozone layer. One woman told me she didn't have to worry at all about the sun growing up but that now she had to lather up with minimum 45 SPF sunscreen. Hopefully that hole will close up in another generation or so and her grandkids can go back to not worrying about it!

Benjamin Fennell said...

Yikes, brutal sun indeed. I haven't been to the beach in a very long time now, and I've never been snorkeling. Not sure how good I'd be at it - I've never been a strong swimmer, and I've been wary of the sea ever since I got chucked onto some sharp rocks by the undertow when I was a kid. I'm lucky I got through that with only some cuts.

Indeed, very interesting to think about. I used to vacation in Florida as a kid since I had a lot of family down there (Not as much these days, but there's still some people down there) and I definitely got some pretty nasty burns a few times, at least once or twice when swimming in my grandmother's pool down there. As I got older, I only took to spending more time inside when down there. In that kind of heat, air conditioning becomes appreciable on even more levels. I don't think I've worn sunscreen in years - the last times I did were probably on beach trips ages ago. But I've managed to avoid getting burned so far this year - though summer hasn't even technically begun yet - and I'm still ghostly pale as usual.

Wow. Yeah. Hopefully as the world continues to get more environmentally conscious, we'll be able to close as many of the holes in the ozone layer as we can. As much damage as we've done to the planet and as many negative repercussions as that's had for people, we can't get to fixing what we can quickly enough.