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Sun Addiction: Can You be Addicted to the Sun?

Sun addiction is being increasingly recognized as a real medical problem. Here’s what you need to know about this condition.

Do you know someone who spends their summer basking in the sun’s rays and when winter arrives immediately heads to the tanning booth? While you might be tempted to attribute this behavior to vanity, lying in the sun and getting a dark tan may extend beyond the desire to simply look good in shorts. There’s some evidence that the persistent need to tan may be due to a form of sun addiction.

Most people are aware of the dangers of the sun, including the potential for skin cancers and premature aging, yet tanning and sun worship remains an ongoing obsession, particularly among teens and young adults. Why might this be? Studies have suggested that lying in the sun causes release of “feel good” hormones known as endorphins. Endorphins are the same chemical compounds that are responsible for the runner’s high, a phenomenon experienced by runners and joggers that keep them addicted to the sport. These endorphins are thought to interact with receptors in the brain and nervous system to help reduce pain and relieve stress related symptoms. Each time the sun worshiper hits the beach or the tanning booth, he or she gets reinforced with the release of more of these feel good chemicals.

People who appear to suffer from sun addiction have been shown to experience withdrawal symptoms including nausea and dizziness when unable to lie in the sun or visit a tanning booth. Sun addiction has even been likened to addiction to drugs and alcohol, so significant can be the symptoms. In a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, it was shown that frequent tanners who were given naltrexone, a medication to block the endorphins released by exposure to the sun, developed classic symptoms of withdrawal, suggesting that sun addiction is a real entity like alcohol and drug addiction.

How is sun addiction treated? First, it’s important to recognize the problem. If a person is spending several days a week in a tanning booth or lying in the sun on a consistent basis and never seems content with how tan they are, it should raise a red flag. A person with a sun addiction may also center the day’s activities around getting sun exposure, even forgoing other work or family related events for the opportunity to tan.

Unfortunately, although sun addition is being increasingly recognized as a condition, there is not established treatment for this problem. Once the problem is recognized, the focus should be on gradually reducing sun exposure so that physical withdrawal symptoms aren’t experienced. It may also help to gradually substitute other healthier activities that stimulate endorphin release such as exercise or meditation. If the obsession is severe, the help of a mental health professional may be needed.

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