A new study finds that heroin addicts and those involved in habitual chronic sun tanning have significant similarities. While the deadly drug that was involved in the deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Belushi and Kurt Cobain may have a more wicked reputation than sun tanning, a new Harvard Medical School study sees “recreational tanning and drug abuse as engaging in the same biological pathway.” Published in Cell, the study advises that the proactive protection of specific individuals may be necessary to avoid “potentially life-threatening exposure.”
The six week study of shaved mice showed that proopiomelanocortin, a protein, is created with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Once this protein has been created, one of the things to happen is that it is transformed into melanin, the pigment responsible for tan skin. However also produced from the protein are endorphins, or pleasure chemicals. Endorphins are opioids and, as such, work through the body’s same opioid receptors as morphine and heroin.
The study found that protracted UV exposure causes dependency, addiction-like behaviors and leads to elevated endorphin levels. Also, the rats exhibited withdrawal symptoms – like teeth chattering, tremors and shaking – after they received doses of the type of drugs used in rehabilitation clinics (naloxone) to block Opioids. A connection between the skin and brain was established and, in what the researchers see as a sure sign of addiction, the mice proceeded to avoid the location where they had received previous administrations of the drug. The Skin Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in New York City, refers to tanning as “the new form of substance abuse.”
Malignant skin cancer (melanoma) is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The national rate of melanoma tripled between 1975 and 2010. At that time, there were 24 cases for every 100,000 Americans.
Researchers have delved into tanning addiction before. The recent Harvard study follows research from 2006 that used human tanners as test subjects. That study expressed findings similar to the new one.
Like fat and carbohydrates, some say it stands to reason that cravings for vitamin D (which is created with sunlight exposure) would occur within the human organism. At least one doctor believes all of this a bit extreme. David Belin, a pharmacologist with the University of Cambridge, says that if the addiction / heroin comparison were true then sun-worshiping humans would act as other opiate addicts do, such as giving up on their families in deference to sunshine or walking away from their jobs in favor of a day at the beach. He also makes it a point that his own countrymen would vacation in southern France and not come back.
Bryon Adinoff is a psychiatrist with the and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who led a study in 2011 that investigated brain activity of habitual users of tanning beds. It found that – in a manner similar to drugs, alcohol or food – “reward centers” in the brain were activated by UV exposure.
The Harvard study states that, although it did not examine sunscreens, it seems likely they can protect against UV-induced addictions that are not unlike heroin. As well, the study points out that, given the known risks of longstanding sun worship, other sources of vitamin D should be considered, such as eggs, fish, fortified foods, and vitamin D supplements.
By Gregory Baskin