Abigail O’Neill On Sunbathing, Chocolate + Vitamin D

Did you know that vitamin D is not a vitamin at all? Vitamin D is actually a hormone and is produced largely from our exposure to the sun.

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.

Abigail has contributed to TCM on and off for eons and demonstrates what "living well" close to the earth really looks like -- at least on her part of the planet. We love following along and picking up inspo from yet another woman in wellness willing to share her way of life with us. Here's Abi...

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!

First up, a truly revolutionary thought: according to some sources we learn that the pure natural variety of the 'Sunshine Vitamin' (Vitamin D) helps to renew, support and even protect our collagen Yes, you read that right, collagen! Vitamin D supports collagen in much the same way that organic antioxidant-rich foods like dark chocolate, carrot juice and all kind of berries do! This means that by simply enjoying a few moments of precious unfiltered sunlight we may actually be investing in looking younger than if we had skipped it, say, for a man-made vitamin supplement.

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...

Abigail O'Neill: This is a valid observation With much respect and kindness, of course, it's certainly worth a moment's discussion. We've been encouraged strongly via magazines, media and even our well-meaning mothers to "be careful of the sun, or we'll end up looking like 'old prunes"! There is truth in that and none of us want to age any faster than we have to. In Australia, I grew up with the catchy '80's campaign that was on TV and we all learned how to sing along; 'Slip Slop Slap', slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and... slap on a hat'. Providing a 100% full spectrum sunblock was the goal. After all that important education it's still a common train of thought to attribute all freckles, pigmentation, finer and deeper lines directly to sun damage. If you would open your mind for just a moment to a more holistic approach, I believe that all skin types, fairer and darker, will mature more beautifully and naturally when exposed to a moderate amount of sunshine -- lesser or greater depending on the natural skin type.
In addition, along with the sun exposure, we cannot neglect to nourish ourselves from the inside with a broad array of antioxidant-rich colourful foods which help to protect our cells and skin from environmental damage, stress, and any overexposure to sunlight.
All of nature, if we pause to look deeper, seems to synchronistically work together like pieces of a universal puzzle to enhance and protect us. Let me show you how, from my own experience, my naturally sunkissed tan is ultimately working towards my health and more than just a pretty talking point.
Abigail O'Neill

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.

I have also genuinely found that plenty of sunshine in my life helps me to manage my emotional and physical health (of course, the two go hand in hand) in times of high stress, including during some utterly devastating periods of grief and loss. Getting enough sun also seems, personally, to make any pain in my body feel less intense, and support a quicker recovery of ailments or illnesses I've experienced.
Abigail O'Neill healthy eating
TCM: Let's talk about how skin type factors in to this. What's your personal skin type?

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!

It's so key to remember to listen to your own body. Consider carefully your own beautiful skin type, as you will need far less sunshine to achieve the same results if your skin is fair. I will suggest that no matter which skin type you have been blessed with, that you make every effort never ever to burn, to stay hydrated, get plenty of rest and eat well. Build your natural tan slowly and evenly over many weeks or months, and you may begin to notice more benefits than you thought possible!
Another wonderful addition to taking your vitamin D naturally (as the sunshine provides) is that usually you will be outdoors when doing so, so you may also be capitalising on oxygen rich fresh air.

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.

We've just had 10 days of rain, and I couldn't help but notice the difference in the spring in my step, it's almost like you become damp inside yourself body and spirit, I certainly felt less vivacious! I mentioned in our last interview that, when I was growing up, I learned 8 simple lifestyle guidelines called the '8 laws of health'. One of them is the 'law' of sunshine. Quite old-fashioned terminology I know, and these days we probably wouldn't call them laws, but it's always stuck with me that if I'm not feeling great, I need to look at which one of those natural principles of health I could improve upon. Perhaps the best thing about the sunshine one is that it's absolutely free to every single person on Earth, requires almost no effort, and seems to work so potently and quickly to improve our overall well-being.

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.

Our skin is our largest organ and everything we put onto it directly, or ingest through our food choices daily, eventually reveal their effects via this ultra important, somewhat superficial layer of ourselves.

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.

Another absolute essential to me is to enjoy as many rejuvenative skin loving fats as found in avocado, raw nuts and seeds, local olives and organic, with small amounts of unheated virgin cold pressed oils.

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.

A point I would reiterate to encourage my family in their food choices and help them remember to save their skin from environmental and lifestyle damage, is somewhat like the original 'you are what you eat' concept. Consider for a moment that impurities from our bodies are in some degree eliminated via our epidermis, and that such wastes may end up 'frying' in the sun during a sunbathing session or working outside, sweating etc, perhaps these toxins contribute to skin troubles of all kinds. With that thought in mind, think of the difference it may make, to be favouring natural cold pressed oils which have health benefits that protect our skin and health, compared to hard fats, greasy foods, hydrogenated, processed and heated oils which have been linked to premature aging and illness. Prevention is surely better than cure.

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.

If you've take all the above into careful consideration and still would like a little extra enhancement, let me again suggest my 'Salt Glows' to anyone wanting to amp up their natural skin tone beautifully. The salts are rich in magnesium and a magnitude of sea minerals, and can be made even more anti-inflammatory and skin-damage preventative by simply adding in a few potent ingredients of your choosing.
The basic body scrub recipe (pre-mentioned above) is a mixture of 50/50 pure sea salt and epsom salts. For an all-natural color-enhancing version I like to add a couple sprinkles of organic turmeric, a splash of cold pressed black seed oil (may use olive or coconut instead, optional, for moisturising qualities), a spoonful or two of raw cacao or cocoa powder, even a tiny sprinkling of beetroot powder or blue spirulina will add depth to the colour, and spicing it up with ground cinnamon and a few drops of your favourite essential oils so you end up smelling and feeling like a greek god/goddess. Make it to your own liking, play with the ratios using more or less of each of the colourful ingredients to suit your own skin type. Mix, and store in a sealed container. This imparts a very gentle tan, you can use twice a week or as often as you like, it can't hurt you, it will only benefit your health as you're stimulating lymphatic system, circulatory system, opening the millions of pores all over your body and leaving you tingling all over. There's no fake chemical ingredients inside, only health enhancing ones! The sky is truly the limit here, and I probably should have been selling these kinds of beauty enhancing, salty mixtures world over, long ago!

TCM: What do you do when you DO get a little too much sun?

AO: If I've had a little too much sun I'll gravitate towards even more antioxidant rich, colourful, seasonal, superfood rich, natural foods known to support cell healing and skin rejuvenation. I never deprive myself of healthy fats. Pretty much all the things I usually do, but more intuitively!
I'll uplift my cellular hydration with lots of pure water (a squeeze of lime and a pinch of celtic salt works wonders for this), freshly cold pressed juices such as watermelon and mint, carrot, ginger and turmeric, pineapple and strawberry. Drink coconut water, enjoy seasonal ingredients in my smoothies and delicious tasty salads rich in essential fatty acids and all the colours of the rainbow!

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?

AO: No, not consistently. Although for short periods of time (usually a few weeks) I will eat softly poached organic eggs on occasion, as a supplementary food, sardines or locally caught small fresh fish sometimes here and there as a supplement rather than my dietary norm.
I've lived the plant based lifestyle for over 30 years, most of the time being 100% vegan (apart from raw honey and bee pollens), so during the course of each year, I will take those supplementary foods on purpose as a top-up mostly for vitamin B12, but also any other nutrients I may be missing, as I'm not so much into man made supplements.
Egg yolks and oily fish do contain natural vitamin D. I prefer never to take any synthetic vitamins, of any kind. If my diet or lifestyle is lacking, I like to discover nature's own solutions for it. That's just me! Last year when I travelled across Europe, I didn't always have my nuts or seeds handy or usual superfoods, but there were so many delicious local fruits and vegetables and olives which I enjoyed, and I even ate a little butter and goats cheese! Always listen to your own body and circumstances you're in, wherever you may be. In my life's journey this has not about any rigid dietary code. This has been about seeking out my own optimum health, inner (results in outer) beauty, and vitality!

TCM: Do you notice a difference in your mood or energy when you sunbathe?

AO: Oh 100 times yes! It's truly incomparable the difference the sunbathing makes to my mood, energy, and good health. It's like getting a shot of something and then, boom!, I've got colour in my cheeks and lips, my more vivacious spirit and smile, a spring in my step. My thought patterns are sharper too, like, literally. The sun kissed me during the course of writing this piece, and I so needed it! Do enjoy your Summer everyone including a little healing, beautifying sunshine!

TCM: What would you say to those who are skeptical or fearful of sunbathing at any level?

AO: This one perhaps I've covered in my other answers but, with much kindness towards yourself, love for your life, your gorgeous body,  and your own beautiful skin you live in, I'll re-emphasise. Because, perhaps it's a matter of taking baby steps in all the areas of your health.
Sometimes it feels as though the sun wants to attack us. Maybe it's that we have other things we need to work on before we can allow it's healing rays to penetrate us. I wouldn't recommend going full force into any sunbathing routine without working on the lifestyle as a whole. Your skin is your largest organ, it is working to eliminate toxins of all kinds that we are exposing ourselves to daily, along with so many others which we have no control over at all.
Working holistically to align ourselves with nature via our choices daily will result in us intuitively being more drawn to what we really crave, maybe that will even in timeinclude a little more sunlight.

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).

Take the first letter of all 8 and you have the word NEW START.
Perhaps that's what we each really need for our health and life daily. I have learned that. in adhering to these oh-so-simple health guidelines my whole life, that nature is wise. I am still learning so much from Her, but I have been empowered all the way! I have found much strength to tackle a pile of health ailments naturally in my own life and also, as I raised our three incredible children, using many natural remedies, and these 8 simple tips to guided me through.
I have experienced paramount confidence too, even now as I'm getting older. I became a fashion model in my mature years probably due to my health and vitality, as truly, beauty is a feeling and being your healthiest version of you will give that feeling to you, and may even open doors you never dreamed were possible! Sending love and light!

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