How Tanning Affects Your Brain
Have you ever come back from your holidays with a deep craving for the sun’s rays on your outstretched limbs? Studies have shown that there may be more to this phenomenon than just post-holiday blues, and what you see as an innocent desire to be out in the sun and get a bit of “healthy” color on your skin, may actually be a sign of addiction.
Up until recently, although scientists have long suspected that regular exposure to ultraviolet rays may be addictive, there was no clear evidence to support the theory that tanning can be addictive.
But, a study carried out at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, showed that certain parts of the brain, which are known to play a part in addiction, are activated when an individual is exposed to UV rays.
During the study, the brain activity of seven volunteers was monitored while they used tanning beds. The volunteers were all frequent users of tanning beds. During the first session, the subjects tanned under UV rays, but during the second session they unknowingly received filtered (fake) UV rays.
When the volunteers underwent the tanning session with the real UV rays, their brains showed signs of increased activity in the dorsal striatum, anterior insula and medial orbitofrontal cortext. These are regions of the brain that are associated with a feeling of being rewarded. The same areas of the brain are also activated when a person consumes drugs or a high-value food such as sugar.
After the real UVR sessions, the subjects showed a decrease in their desire to tan, as they had received their “fix.” However, when the subjects underwent a session with filtered UV rays, they still reported a strong desire to tan, despite the fact that they did not know that the UV rays had been filtered. Clearly, there was no fooling these dedicated tanners that they had gotten their quota of UV exposure for the day.
The fact that tanning is addictive should come as no surprise to most people. After all, we know the damage that ultra violet radiation can cause. From wrinkles and premature aging to skin cancer, the health risks are numerous. Statistics from the Skin Cancer Foundation show that there are over 120,000 new cases of melanoma every year in the United States alone.
But even though education on the potential dangers of tanning has greatly improved, there are still countless people who continue to worship the sun or visit tanning beds on a regular basis. This compulsive behavior is similar to that of people who are addicted to nicotine or alcohol.
Research carried out in 2005, with the help of a test that had been designed to spot alcohol abuse, showed that those who frequent tanning beds or regularly set out to sun bathe meet the psychiatric definition of a substance abuse disorder.
Those who enjoy visiting tanning beds know that what they are doing is bad for them, yet, because the brain registers these effects as a rewarding or satisfying experience, it is hard for them to stop.
Does this mean that anything we enjoy doing could potentially be addictive?
Although in theory this may be true, it is clear that some substances or practices are far more addictive than others. For example, while food in general is not thought of as addictive, people have been known to develop addictions to certain foods, particularly those high in sugar content.
So, while you are unlikely to develop an addiction to broccoli, if you are accustomed to having a milkshake every day, you will probably miss it when you don’t have it.
The scientists’ findings regarding tanning beds are backed by the years of experience of dermatologists who deal with patients suffering from melanoma or other UVR related health problems. Many dermatologists have noted this addictive behavior in their patients, who will often return straight to their old habits of tanning once their cancers have been cut out.
Unfortunately, many people are under the mistaken impression that tanning beds are quite safe or that they do not pose as much of a health risk as natural sun exposure. This misconception was, in the past, promoted by salon owners, who assured their customers that much of the dangerous ultraviolet radiation was filtered out and that the exposure from a tanning bed is more controlled than outdoor sunbathing.
A study carried out at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and Masonic Cancer Center, however, shows a definite link between the use of tanning beds and melanoma. The research, one of the largest ever carried out on this subject, involved over 2,200 Minnesotans.
The researchers found that those who use tanning beds on a regular basis were 74% more likely to develop malignant melanoma. Those who visit tanning beds as little as four times a year may already be increasing their risk of melanoma by 11%.
The study also examined the argument of whether or not certain types of tanning devices are more likely to have an adverse effect on people’s health than others. The conclusion left no room for argument.
The researchers found that there is simply no such thing as a safe tanning device, and the use of a tanning bed for any amount of time can greatly increase an individual’s risk of developing skin cancer, regardless of their age or gender.
If you recognize this behavior, you may be addicted to tanning, and you should seriously consider taking measures to detoxify yourself of the harmful addiction. As cliché as it may sound, the first step to recovering from an addiction is admitting that you have one in the first place.
If you have come to the end of this article and find yourself denying that your visits to the tanning salon present a health problem or explaining away your actions and attempting to justify your behavior with rational arguments, then chances are you are already moving towards the path of recovery.
Just as smoking or drug and alcohol abuse can pose a serious health threat, tanning, whether indoors or outdoors, is a dangerous pastime and should be treated the same as any other harmful addiction.
Image by Alex Proimos