Just as the sun is finally starting to peek out after a long, cold winter (bet you almost started questioning its existence for a while there!), a controversial new study says its rays might be heart-healthy: Sunlight exposure may cause lowered blood pressure—which may in turn reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to research presented last week at the International Investigative Dermatology conference in Edinburgh.
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh placed participants under tanning lamps for 20 minutes and measured their blood pressure during their lamp exposure and for an hour afterward. The researchers then repeated the experiment, but covered the participants in a foil blanket. Both groups’ blood pressure fell immediately after the sun exposure—but the ones who weren’t covered in the blanket had reduced blood pressure levels 30 minutes afterward, as well. Senior author Richard Weller, MD, a senior lecturer in dermatology at the University of Edinburgh, believes they got these results because of a compound called nitric oxide, which can be released from our skin into our bloodstream when we’re exposed to UV light, possibly causing a decrease in blood pressure.
Weller says more research needs to be done to determine if a long-term drop in blood pressure could come about as a result of UV exposure. “What I’ve shown is an interesting mechanism by which sunlight might prove to have big general health benefits, but it’s not proven,” says Weller. “We want to find the amount of UV that will reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke but won’t increase the risk of skin cancer. But for the moment, the advice remains what it’s always been.”
That last part is key: These study results are in no way (none, zip, zero) a go-ahead to ignore your dermatologist’s sun safety recommendations.
You should continue to follow the same guidelines you’re already familiar with: Avoid the midday sun, wear an SPF 50 or higher, reapply sunscreen when you’re outside (remember it’s not waterproof!), and shade your face with hats and sunglasses, says Michele S. Green, MD, a New York City dermatologist who was not involved in the study. “I don’t want people in a tanning bed under any circumstances,” she says.
You should also note this: These researchers are interested in a risk-benefit ratio for the population—overall, more people die from cardiovascular disease than skin cancer. But for you, that should be a moot point: You should already be working to keep your blood pressure down the good old-fashioned ways: by eating well, exercising, and never, ever smoking.
Check out these links on sun safety and exercising outdoors—so you can work on your cardiovascular health and reap the health benefits of nature (even with that sunscreen slathered on):
The Best Sunscreen Products
7 Reasons to Take Your Workout Outdoors
Sunscreen Myths Busted
Fun Outdoor Workouts
Sunscreen Questions Answered
The Top 10 Nature Runs in the United States
More from Women’s Health:
5 Steps to a Healthy Heart
The Truth About Heart Disease
Heart Health: Numbers to Know
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