Summer in Australia brings long, warm days and more opportunities to enjoy the sunshine outdoors. From the Chinese medicine perspective, this is the most Yang time of year.
In contrast to the slower, more inward pace of winter’s Yin, our Qi moves outwards and upwards, towards the skin surface. We cope well with more activity, can do with a little less sleep, and generally respond better to vigorous exercise. Sunshine is a potent Qi tonic, and many of us experience a lift in energy and mood as the sun comes out.
Sunlight is a wonderful source of Vitamin D, which is important for calcium absorption, bone health, and a functioning immune system. The best way to absorb enough vitamin D is through short bursts of incidental sun exposure to the hands, arms, face or legs. Contrary to what we might think, prolonged sun exposure does not result in a significant increase in Vitamin D levels. It does however increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
Though it can be delicious to bask in the sun, it is well known that UV radiation causes skin damage. Potential negative effects of UV exposure include sunburn, lowered immunity, premature aging and cancer.
The best way to protect ourselves from harmful UV rays is to avoid direct sun exposure. Yet, given the positive effects of sunshine on our mood and physical health (especially if we spend time outdoors being physically active), how do we safely find a balance between doing damage and enjoying time in the sun?
The obvious answer is sun protection, in the form of both physical and chemical barriers to UV rays. Wear a hat, UV-protective sunglasses, adequate clothing and sunscreen, and spend time in the shade.
Natural skin care
Plants are very good at protecting themselves from UV radiation. The specific natural ingredients and UV-protective elements from some plants are currently being investigated. Though the full potential of plant products to protect our skin from the sun is still unknown – and they should not be used to replace sunscreen – they can be used in addition to more conventional protection.
Where natural products can definitely be beneficial, however, is after sun exposure. Plant products have been utilised for their soothing, anti-inflammatory and moisturising effects for generations. Oils such as sesame, coconut, peanut and olive oils are excellent for cooling the skin and relieving mild pain and discomfort. Herbs and herbal preparations are also high in antioxidants, and therefore have the potential for protection from damage after sun exposure and managing side effects.
Two of my favourite after-sun remedies are:
• Green and black tea (camellia sinensis). These teas contain polyphenols, which are soothing to the skin. The Chinese recommend applying cooled black tea directly to the skin as a home remedy for sunburn. The tannic acid and theobromine in tea help remove heat from burns. Tea has a cooling and restorative effect, is anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, has anti-aging and photo-protective effects.
• Aloe vera gel (100% – directly from the plant). Aloe vera stimulates skin repair and assists in new cell growth. It has a protective effect if applied before sun exposure (but be sure to use sunscreen as well), is cooling and soothing after burns, and moisturises and promotes collagen production to speed up skin healing.
As well as using topical sun-protection and after-sun care, it is important to nourish ourselves from the inside out in order to heal effectively. Keep well hydrated and eat a diet high in antioxidants, especially vitamins C, E, flavonoids and phenolic acids, to ensure adequate repair after sun exposure and potentially limit the negative effects of UV rays.
Antioxidants assist in fighting against free radicals, which are the main causative agents in skin changes due to sun damage. Green tea is a rich source of antioxidants, making it a wonderful internal and external remedy. Foods rich in antioxidants include berries, banana, apple, peach, pear, fig, cherry, plum, pomegranate, red radish, eggplant, red cabbage, green bean, onion and turmeric. Incorporate as many colourful foods as you can in your diet.
Enjoy the sunshine this summer!