In the past few years, numerous studies have shown that optimizing your vitamin D levels may actually help prevent as many as 16 different types of cancer including pancreatic, lung, breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancers. There is even evidence that Vitamin D protects against colds, flu and viral infections. Yet despite our knowledge of the benefits of Vitamin D, we live in a culture that has grown to demonize the sun, and hence are facing the consequences of an increase in Vitamin D deficiency. Instead we should embrace our relationship to the sun through safe, smart and limited sunscreen-free exposure to its rays of light.
Like all living things, we need the sun. For millions of years, humans have spent many hours out in the sun each day without the protection of sunscreen. As such, it seems completely backwards for this natural and essential part of life to be solely considered as dangerous. In the same way that plants harness the sun’s rays through photosynthesis, our bodies use sunlight to help the skin produce the vitamin D it needs to build bones, bolster the immune system and even protect against cancer (including skin cancer).
Both Industrialization and the demonization of the sun have greatly contributed to widespread vitamin D deficiency. Whereas humans used to spend many hours outside every day working in fields, on farms, and (pre-agricultural revolution) hunting and foraging for food; modern humans in industrialized nations work and recreate mostly indoors. Technology has cast a system in which we spend most of our times commuting in vehicles to work in either offices or enclosed spaces, then spending our leisure time in either in shopping malls, movie theaters, bars, restaurants, or in our own homes in front of the television or computer screens. Many of us even exercise in gyms, pools or on treadmills located inside our own homes!
Today, we live in a society in which Western medicine has started an alarmist trend of warning us to abstain from things that are bad for us: fat, carbohydrates, salt and even sunshine when in fact these are things are essential for our well-being when consumed wisely and in moderation. In the case of sunshine, our UV paranoia is contributing to a silent epidemic: Vitamin D deficiency. It’s silent because most people don’t know they are deficient. And it’s deadly, because this deficiency can lead to cancer and a multitude of other diseases.
Studies show that as many as three out of four Americans suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. A study published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 70 percent of Caucasians, 90 percent of Hispanics and 97 percent of African Americans in the US have insufficient blood levels of vitamin D. Traditionally; vitamin D has been viewed by researchers and physicians as functioning mainly to maintain bone density and prevent bone loss. Bone-softening diseases that have been attributed to vitamin D deficiency include osteomalacia, osteopenia, and osteoporosis in adult patients. While it is true that vitamin D plays a significant role in bone health, emerging research suggests that its presence or absence also contributes to the overall health of other body systems, including the immune system, the autoimmune system, the cardiovascular system, and the integumentary system. Yet because the signs and symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are insidious or nonspecific, it often goes unrecognized and untreated.”
Vitamin D deficiency can also lead to other conditions such as “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD) and insomnia. SAD is a situational mood disorder brought on by diminishing daylight in the fall and winter months. High doses of vitamin D during these months have proven to be a very effective natural remedy for SAD, leading most practitioners to believe that normal neurotransmitter function depends in part on adequate vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D levels are inversely related to those of melatonin, a mood-regulating hormone. Melatonin helps temper your circadian rhythms, with darkness triggering melatonin secretion by the pineal gland within your brain, helping to promote a healthy night’s sleep. Melatonin influences insomnia, mood swings and even food cravings. Sunlight shuts melatonin production off, while triggering release of vitamin D — that’s why doctors recommend getting outdoors as a remedy for jet lag.
Our vitamin D needs vary with age, body weight, percent of body fat, latitude, skin coloration, season of the year, use of sun block, individual reactions to sun exposure, and our overall health.
A Few Tips for Healthy Sun Exposure and Optimizing your Vitamin D Levels:
- Never fall asleep in the sun without protection.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Avoid sunburn.
- It is sunburn, not healthy sun exposure that causes problems. Repeated sunburns, especially in children and very fair-skinned people, have been linked to melanoma
- Get 15-30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure two to four times a week. Each of us has different needs for unprotected sun exposure to maintain adequate levels of Vitamin D. Depending on your age, what type of skin you have, where you live and what time of the day and year it is, your need will vary. The farther you live from the equator, the more exposure to the sun you need in order to generate vitamin D. For instance, a fair skinned person, sitting on a New York beach in June, in the middle of the day, for about 10-15 minutes (enough to cause a light pinkness 24 hours after), is producing the equivalent of 15,000-20,000 IU’s of Vitamin D. But the same person living further north in the U.K, or Canada would need 20-30 minutes to get that light pinkness, which is all one needs. Also, people with dark skin pigmentation may need 20 – 30 times as much exposure to sunlight as fair-skinned people, to generate the same amount of vitamin D.
- Wear a hat or bring an umbrella for those summer beach days.
- After your sun-block free time in the sun, you must protect yourself. Use a sunscreen that does not contain harmful or toxic chemicals.
- Don’t rely on food alone for your vitamin D needs. It is almost impossible to get your vitamin D needs met by food alone. Fatty wild fish (not farmed), like salmon and mackerel are the best food sources, but you would have to eat huge quantities of them daily to get anywhere near what your body needs. Although fortified milk and orange juice do contain vitamin D, you would have to drink at least 10 glasses of each daily and I don’t recommend doing that.
Although irresponsible sunbathing is indeed harmful and potentially dangerous for us, regular, moderate and unprotected sun exposure is essential for our good health and well-being. Sunshine is part of our nature and furthermore, it’s free, accessible and good for you. It is the only reliable way to generate vitamin D in your own body, which we now know to be an essential ingredient for optimizing health and helping to prevent disease. So this summer, behold the sun, be smart and shine on!