Chief Science Correspondent
Today marks the first day of summer, and many of us will spend the months ahead in pursuit of the perfect summer tan.
But why do we love tanning so much? And why will we put our physical health (and wrinkle-prone skin) at risk for a temporarily darker hue? Science may have found the answer.
According to a study published in Cell earlier this week, the sun's glaring rays may have formed the basis for a chemically addictive behavior that persists within our species today.
The Huffington Post reported on this finding yesterday, publishing a story entitled "Scientists May Have Found Humankind's Original Addiction." However, do not be fooled by this headline; the study does not in any way claim that UV dependency was the first addiction.
In fact, various scientists have been able to previously track a variety of our addictive behaviors back to our evolutionary roots. Rather, the study found a physiological dependency to UV exposure that may explain potential addiction to sun tanning, even with the risk of melanoma.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School, found that exposure to UV radiation increased production of the hormone β-endorphin in mice, which increased their blood plasma levels and decreased their sensitivity to pain. The exposed mice then altered their behavior to avoid UV withdrawal.
"The concept that we would have a pathway in our skin that is organically guiding us to seek out the most common carcinogen in the world almost seems like a joke," said senior study author Dr. David Fisher n a Huffington Post interview. "From a scientific perspective, this raises an interesting prospect that perhaps UV-seeking was the original addiction."
Although the study was performed within a rodent model, the team notes that the addictive behavior patterns correlate with similar addictive patterns in humans. The study concludes that the attraction to UV radiation likely evolved initially to enhance Vitamin D synthesis, promoting a variety of health benefits including bone health.
They conclude that this information shows that excessive tanning could be even more dangerous than previously thought, and recommend that the knowledge be used to regulate tanning beds, particularly for younger teenagers. While tanning has previously been treated merely as a risky behavior, the team stresses that it should be treated as an addictive drug - because potentially, it is.
Tanning addictions have been reported in the past, but tend to be treated as a cultural novelty, rather than a severe clinical problem. Individuals with "tanning dependency" have been featured on a variety of shows such as "My Strange Addiction," and while their struggles may have been addressed on a psychological level, it is critical that we use this information to help better help these patients cope with life's inherent physiological dependencies.