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Study Finds Sunshine Can Act Like Addictive Drug, Have Similar Effect On Body As Heroin

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- When considering an addiction, many people might think of cigarettes and alcohol – but new information shows the sun might also act like a powerful drug on your brain and have a similar effect on the body to heroin.

As CBS 2's Dr. Max Gomez reported, it is not hard to find lots of people sunning themselves in city parks on a warm sunny day like Friday was. The sunbathers truly seemed to be enjoying it – even though most of them said they knew they could be risking skin cancer.

"We had a very long and sad winter, so now that the sun's out and it's warm, we just want to be outside and just like, soak it all up when we can," said Jessica Spiegel as she sunbathed in Central Park.

"When you're tanner, you look healthier; you feel better," said Daniella Cassella. "I mean, I totally am a sun worshiper."

But new research in the June 19 issue of the journal Cell suggested that our attraction to the sun may be more about addiction than vanity.

As 1010 WINS' Glenn Schuck reported, once a day for two weeks, researchers exposed laboratory mice to ultraviolet rays equivalent to half an hour of midday Florida sun.

They found that the mice had elevated levels of brain chemicals called beta-endorphins -- the "feel-good" hormones that act on the same pleasure and reward centers in the brain as opioid drugs such as heroin and oxycodone.

"So people who are addicted to drugs will have the same kind of activity in their brain as what this study was showing in mice with sunlight exposure," said Dr. Jennifer Stein of NYU Langone Medical Center.

So even with all the warnings about skin cancer and premature skin aging, the desire to bake oneself – especially in tanning beds – might be a true physical need.

It could even explain tan-o-holics such as tanning mom Patricia Krentcil of Nutley, New Jersey.

Even stronger evidence for addiction came when the researchers gave the mice naxolone, the same drug used to treat drug addiction in humans.

"By giving them the drug, they were able to give the mice the same withdrawal-type symptoms, like shaking, that you might see in someone who's addicted to drugs," Stein said.

Schuck went to Palisades Park to get reaction on the study.

"People are addicted to all sorts of things, they can't start their day without coffee, so I guess I can see how psychologically you could work yourself up to thinking you have to be out in the sun," one woman said.

One man, named Howard, called the study "nonsense."

"People make it feel good and it's enjoyable, but I can't accept that it's addicting at all," Howard said. "People also do tons of other things, like driving too fast, everything isn't addictive, some of it is just bad judgement."

Mice are not humans, of course. People have more control over their behavior, and no one has claimed that tanning is as addictive as narcotics, smoking or alcohol.

But everyone who spoke to CBS 2 claimed they used sunscreen, which is the only way you should even think about lying in the sun.

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