QJ Science: Addicted to Tanning

Your daily tanning habit may be more problematic than you think. New research suggests that tanning could actually be more of an addiction.

Exposure to UV light is known to cause cancer, but this hasn't meant a decrease in tanning. In fact, researchers at Harvard Medical School have uncovered new evidence that suggests UV light has addictive qualities.

The research, published in the journal Cell, was conducted using mice, which were shaved and exposed to low levels of UV light five days per week over the course of six weeks. This exposure was chosen to mimic 20-30 minutes of midday sun exposure during the summer for a person of average tanning ability.

As expected, the results indicated skin cells contained increased levels of melanocyte-stimulating hormone, a chemical that induces tanning. The mice also exhibited an increase in β-endorphin production.

Endorphins are the body’s natural pain-killing chemicals, acting on the same receptors as opioid drugs like morphine. Production of β-endorphin in UV-damaged cells isn’t surprising — it’s the body’s natural reaction to sustaining damage.

But endorphin levels didn’t just rise within skin cells, but in the bloodstream as well, indicating the pain-reducing effects of tanning are felt throughout the body — they aren’t limited to the exposed skin cells.

To test whether the chronically increased levels of β-endorphin created physical dependence — a requirement for addiction — researchers blocked its pain-killing effects. This produced classic withdrawal symptoms of shakes and tremors, symptoms that are seen in opioid-addicted humans as well.

This research doesn’t equate sunbathing to morphine addiction, nor does it suggest it as a gateway to other addictive behaviours; however, it does suggest that chronic exposure to UV light can cause physical dependency.

It may be why you’re so motivated to hit up the beach in the summer.

If you’d rather avoid getting “addicted” to the beach, there is another option to get your β-endorphin “fix”. Going for a run has also been shown to cause endorphin release and produce the so-called “runner’s high” — just don’t forget the sunscreen.

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