Tanning As An Addiction

darth_sidiousA new study from Harvard Medical School, published in the journal CELL, suggests that ultraviolet rays may release naturally-occurring hormones called endorphins.  Endorphins are hormones that, when released, make you feel pleasure or satisfaction, and have literally been defined by scientists as “a morphine-like substance originating within the body”.

So if UV rays help to release endorphins, that theory may explain why certain people crave tanning.  Dr. David Fisher and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital feel that the addictive effects of ultraviolet rays may make people feel compelled to continue to tan.

Even if these frequent tanners know full well the increased risk of skin cancer, and the fact that this behavior is dangerous to their health and long term appearance, the good feeling they get keeps them coming back.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  A person knowing very well the deleterious effects of a deadly habit, yet still continuing that habit, is the textbook definition of an addiction.

During the MassGeneral study, mice were exposed to UV light for six weeks, and the researchers measured the endorphins in their blood levels.  Within the first week, endorphins in the blood increased and continued to elevate while the mice were exposed to the UV light.

After the six weeks, the mice were given a drug which blocks the effects of opiates and endorphins.  As a result, the mice that received the drug show classic symptoms of withdrawal such as tremors and shaking.

The researchers concluded that these adverse reactions confirmed that the same receptors responsible for blocking pain were also involved in the euphoria and addiction of tanning and UV rays.  The findings suggest that the decision to protect the skin requires more of a conscious effort.

tanning_bed_coffinNaturally, Dr. Fisher feels that the potentially addictive effects of UV rays may explain why people continue to expose themselves despite the increased risk of cancer.  He also feels that the parents should not just tell the children to put on sunscreen, but they should make the extra effort to be sure the sunscreen is applied.  Younger generations need to be educated at an earlier age about the risks of tanning before subjecting themselves to the possibly addictive effects of ultraviolet rays.

As I have said before, the sun is not your friend, although it can be very seductive and obviously addictive.  Avoid the increased risk of skin cancer and the long-term effects of photo aging by actively applying sunscreen of SPF 30 or above daily.  Last but not least, avoid tanning beds at all costs!

About Dr. John Burke

John Burke M.D. has practiced medicine for over 25 years, and is the founding partner of MidMaine Internal Medicine. He established Maine Laser Skin Care in 2004 after devoting years to learning the latest in laser and dermatologic technology. Dr. Burke has treated patients from all over the United States. He is one of Maine's busiest practitioners in laser treatments, and in the use of Botox for upper facial lines and excessive sweating.
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