Abigail O’Neill On Sunbathing, Chocolate + Vitamin D
Over the last few decades, how, when, and how much we expose ourselves to the sun has become a highly controversial health and wellness topic. It's that controversy that almost kept me from running this interview.
Over the years, we've promised to share a wide variety of viewpoints with you and you, our readers, have largely embraced the exploration of a wide variety of important views on health (perhaps the vegans here are the most tolerant!).
Earlier this summer, I asked Aussie model, author and mother of three grown children, Abigail O'Neill to tell me everything about the sun-bathing and hydrotherapy routine she so often shares in the sun, sand and waterfalls near her home in Bondi. After receiving her response to my interview, I sat on it for weeks, concerned about the reaction from the likes of my pale and sunburn-prone brethren, but, more so, from staunch advocates of skin cancer prevention. In no way does this story or Abigail's perspective seek to negate the need for sunscreen in total or to illegitimize the seriousness surrounding skin cancer and it's prevention. However, many health pros are also concerned that many of us have become a bit sun-phobic, neglecting the healthful amount of sun exposure ideal for a healthy mood and balanced health.
Hi again, TCM. As I'm working through this interview, I'm actually enjoying the magical free gift of light falling from above and encompassing my largest organ, my skin, and -- you guessed it -- sunbathing for health is something I've been doing literally my whole life. With a word of caution, I'd like to suggest that anyone at all may benefit from the practice, no matter what their personal skin type with some thought and planning!
TCM: Abigail, so many women we know who grew up on the beach have more premature skincare issues than others. Let's unpack that a bit from your perspective...
TCM: Let's talk about sunbathing in general. We've so often been told to avoid the sun and to bathe ourselves in sunscreen when we do. What's your experience?
AO: Seems I'm quietly out of sync with the mainstream on this one. I simply do not wear sunscreen, and now in my mid-forties, at times find myself craving my daily dose of Vitamin D more than ever! The magical rule is, never to burn.
To anyone reading this who may be new to the idea of skipping the 'Slip Slop Slap' sunscreen bathing ritual or application of SPF moisturiser or even foundation in order to avoid sun damage, please stay with me.
In my experience, I've discovered that my self acquired suntan actually works as my skin's 'natural filter' (kind of as sunscreen does) to protect against the sun's harshness -- helping to prevent my skin from burning easily, hence helping to protect me from those more negative effects of overexposure. Interesting? Let me put it this way. In making a consistent effort to expose my body to the sunlight often, I in turn burn far less easily because I have been mindful to maintain my natural tan all year round.
This is one of the secrets of my personal skincare routine. If you're new to the concept and would like to give it a go, simply work towards slowly and cautiously 'building up' your colour depending on your own natural skin tone. While most of us want to achieve an instant tan, building your tolerance to sun exposure needs to be done with painstaking care and patience to protect your skin from any semblance of burning. Continuing to carefully nourish that natural darker pigment all year long -- not just in summer -- is key.
Many of us have learned to be desperately afraid of the risks of sun overexposure. As a result, we are avoiding one of the most potent natural supports we have available to us (it all comes back to Vitamin D!). We are creatures evolving around light and day -- these streams of life-giving rays feel, in my opinion, healing and uplifting in almost every sense! One thing I love to do to invite plenty of Vitamin D-rich light into my life is simply to step outside first thing in the morning, breathing deeply, even just for 60 seconds, and allow the sun's light to penetrate through my eyes (closed or open) and forehead, activating the pituitary gland and awakening my mind for the new day.
In a nutshell, 90% of the Vitamin D we get comes from skin exposure to the sun. Sunlight, scientifically speaking, strengthens our bones, can improve heart health, may actually lower our risk of certain cancers (please research all of these points for yourself), reduce diabetes risk, has been tied to a reduced risk of dying prematurely, diminishes symptoms of depression, and increases muscle strength. Vitamin D also plays a very important role in maintaining a healthy balance in the gut microbiome and has a positive influence on gastrointestinal disorders, even contributing to a smoother running metabolism. Is there anything this healing vitamin cannot contribute to positively? Vitamin D is known to reduce the severity of colds and flu, helps to balance the hormones and regulate sleep patterns, and, of course, boost the immune system naturally.
AO: I have my mothers Portuguese skin, and I crave lots of vitamin D to make me feel at my most radiant. I have noticed that persons with even darker skin need even more sunlight daily to receive their daily Vitamin D quota. My daughter, on the other hand, has her daddy's Irish complexion and needs only approximately an 1/8 - 1/4 of the time I like to spend in the sun!
TCM: Okay, Abigail. So, most of us have learned that even animals seek refuge from the sun at high noon. Timing matters here. When do you usually sunbathe?
AO: In high summer, I like to enjoy sunbathing before 11am here in Australia as the sting of the sun is really quite intense through the middle of the day, or even after 3pm.
During the cooler months, I will take my Vitamin D as it lovingly encompasses me just about at any time I can! Today, I enjoyed the sun for an hour between 1 to 2pm and it was so divine I fell asleep for at least 10 minutes. The restorative power it seems to have is unlike anything else. I always feel so good afterwards. I suppose we may be a lot like plants after all!
TCM: And how often or how much sun do you like to get?
AO: I like to sunbathe myself from 30 minutes to 1- 2 hours. I will lie in the sun's life-giving light every second day on average, but sometimes it may be more or less depending on the duration of my last visit to 'nature's day spa' and of course the weather and time of year. Of course, if I've been gardening in the sunshine, walking, or surfing, I may have had ample exposure already.
An effective technique for maximum Vitamin D uptake is to first activate the skin across the entire body, eliminating any dead skin cells by either a dry skin brushing technique or as I personally prefer: a full body mineral rich exfoliation.
I've been making DIY 'Salt Glows' at home since I was only a young teenager -- so economical and powerful, as they are rich in naturally occurring minerals. If you'd like to try it yourself in your own bathroom, simply use a basic mixture of 50/50 pure sea salt and epsom salts. Moisten the body all over as in a warm shower, then taking handfuls of the salt, rub the skin vigorously up and down all over each limb, over and over, all over the entire body, then rinse off to reveal your new living skin, mineralised, activated and cleansed. Towel dry, and then immediately go and enjoy some sunshine. I love to do this ritual of self care twice weekly before taking my sunbath. It opens the skin pores to the light, leaving no debris between.
TCM: Do you use coconut oil or anything during sunbathing? Can you tell us why?
AO: Yes! I love coconut oil, I don't use it every time, but definitely in the middle of summer I will use this, as it has a very minute amount of UV protection, mostly because the oil acts as a reflectant and because coconut oil is rich in linoleic acid (Vitamin F) which helps the skin retain moisture, vitamin E and A which may help to reduce the damage from free radicals and too much sun, and lauric acid which possesses antibacterial, antifungal properties, which may prove beneficial for various skin complaints. I also love to wear a large hat for my face for most of the time, removing it for a few minutes only.
I'm generally not trying to reduce my exposure to the sunshine when basking in it, rather enhance it's healing potential by keeping the skin as clear and free as possible.
TCM: How do you take care of your skin after sun?
AO: After a healthy dose of sunshine, I love to moisturise my entire body with a little cold pressed organic coconut oil if I haven't used it during sunbathing or alternatively smudging raw cacao butter over my skin (smells amazing), or any cold pressed organic oil I'm drawn to at the time. I also use fresh aloes from my garden, often in the Summer.
TCM: Let's talk about the kind of things you eat and drink to keep your skin healthy...
AO: Oooh, this must be my favourite part of our discussion so far! It's interesting, how hugely our diet affects the health and natural beauty of our skin. We see it almost instantly upon the complexion, the same goes for every living outer cell which encompasses the whole body.
For over three decades now, I've lovingly supported my skin predominantly from the inside out. It's a non-negotiable program that is standing the test of time, year in year out, and best thing is - it's all so very delicious!
My daily diet is ever created fresh from nature's unprocessed 'food rainbows'. That means lots of raw organic fruit and vegetables rich in vibrancy and antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and life giving enzymes. Also, I supplement my diet with yummy organic superfoods like raw cacao (as created from my book Model Chocolate) as often as I please.
Other superfoods I enjoy are things like immune strengthening mushrooms (all kinds fresh, dried), local organic berries, seaweeds, bee pollen, raw honey from our own bees, herbal teas and a superfood powder I make myself which is based on chlorella, blue spirulina, curcumin, powdered horsetail herb (silica), maca root, medicinal mushrooms, and any other particulars I feel I need at the time. It changes all the time, and is a little bit of a witchy brew, but I've always loved playing with herbal tea formulas for health and beauty, and instead of purchasing expensive 'green powders' I prefer for potency and personal adaptation, to simply make my own.
An abundance of herbs and greens are ever overflowing from my home garden and onto my plate daily, along with probiotic rich foods, anti-inflammatory health enhancing spices such as turmeric (try grating it fresh over your meals) and ginger, a few simply prepared nourishing legumes, gluten free grains on occasion, and clean cooked (no heated oils) starchy vegetables. In Winter I enjoy more of these warming, balancing foods.
TCM: What do you eat or drink to encourage a healthy, balanced tan? Are you a carrot juice person? Again, there may be readers who don't think 'healthy' and 'tan' even belong in the same sentence...
AO: Research has shown that the flamboyant red and orange pigments naturally occurring in many fruits and vegetables help to develop and maintain a gorgeous natural tan, whilst helping to protect us from sun damage. How miraculous is Nature?
I absolutely adore my carrot juices especially through the Summertime! So rich in beta-carotene, and that actually encourages tanning, it's a sunshine match made in heaven! The humble carrots key element is vitamin A. Working to protect our cells from oxidative damage, vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant! The delicious healing vitamin E-rich food fats I prefer to enjoy are excellent for suntanning as well, as they also improve the elasticity of the cell membranes and balance the hormones in charge of hydration and fat deposits in the dermis.
TCM: What do you do when you DO get a little too much sun?
If I've been outside for too long, such as during the long Australian Summer months and feel I've overdosed on those more damaging UV rays without intention, I'll take a warm shower (helps to remove the sting out of over sunkissed skin). I couldn't advise, of course, on a very bad sunburn, but if I get just a bit more sun than I had planned I will apply tiny amounts of beautiful essential oils you love specific for skin healing such as lavender, frankincense, geranium, rose, myrrh, chamomile, in a carrier oil such as organic cold pressed coconut, olive, or your favourite for your particular skin type. Fresh aloe vera from the garden is a well known remedy for burns of all kinds, the cooling inner gel is amazing for natural skincare at anytime. Rest helps too, so don't forget your eight hours. I also am always careful to clothe my limbs in thin cotton (or other natural fibres) to cover my skin during the Summer or times where I've already received my daily dose of Vitamin D, along with a nice big hat to protect my face and decolletage from too much exposure. Remember, too much of a good anything isn't good for you.
TCM: Do you yourself supplement with Vitamin D in any other significant ways?
TCM: Do you notice a difference in your mood or energy when you sunbathe?
TCM: What would you say to those who are skeptical or fearful of sunbathing at any level?
Here are the 8 laws again I referred to earler, of which sunshine is only one. So very simple, yet trasformative. I've loved and lived by these daily:
Nutrition (for me this means predominantly plant based, with lots of raw, nothing at all processed), Exercise (powerful catalyst), pure Water (inside and out - hydrotherapy), Sunshine (there she is!) Temperance (an old fashioned word for balance in all things), fresh Air (deep breaths, in nature where possible), Rest (minimum 8 hrs), and Trust (letting go of what we cannot change, faith in what we can).
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