When summertime finally arrives after a long winter, one is easily tempted to want to sing the famous song lyrics “let the sun shine in, face it with a grin…”. Facing the question of safe sun exposure though obviously requires far more caution and thoughtful analysis. From a medical view, it is critical to balance two important facts.
The sun is both a valuable source of vitamin D and possibly a source of damaging UV rays. Therefore a sensible approach includes learning safe strategies on how to properly maintain normal vitamin D levels for optimal health AND becoming educated about effective sun protection, including which sunscreens are considered safest for our bodies and which may cause health risks. With greater knowledge, one can enjoy summer by having a much more informed and empowered relationship with the sun and its broad implications on our health.
Why is Vitamin D essential for optimal health?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that functions almost like a hormone. One of the major roles of Vitamin D is to maintain strong bones by helping the body absorb calcium. Vitamin D also supports immune function, reduces inflammation, aids neuro-muscular function and may help protect the body from some forms of cancers. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with osteoporosis, breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, depression and weight gain. In the presence of sunlight, Vitamin D precursors are formed in the skin and then it is the kidneys that are part of the mechanism that turns the Vitamin D into its active form which then allows the blood to deliver it to the rest of the body. Ongoing research has made it very clear that Vitamin D may be essential for preserving optimal health and potentially for reducing the risk of a variety of diseases.
Sun as a source of Vitamin D and other sources
The sun is vital source of Vitamin D therefore humans need sunlight but the key is not to get too much. As little as 10-15 minutes a day of sun exposure (without sun protection) is thought to prevent Vitamin D deficiency. One strategy is to skip putting sunscreen on your legs for the first 15 minutes in the sun and then apply it in time to prevent any burns or damage. There are food sources of Vitamin D but very few foods in nature contain Vitamin D. Some sources to consider are salmon, mackerel, cod liver oil, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks and foods fortified with Vitamin D.
There are two forms of Vitamin D. Vitamin D2 is made by plants and Vitamin D3 is made by human skin when exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D supplements are available and in my clinical experience I have seen Vitamin D3 be more effectively absorbed than D2 especially when it is also in a liquid form.
Before you consider taking a Vitamin D supplement though speak to your doctor and the first step is to have your Vitamin D levels checked by a simple blood test and to continue to have it monitored yearly. In my naturopathic practice I ask all of my new patients to have their Vitamin D levels assessed and approximately 50% are surprised to find out they are deficient. Luckily deficiencies are usually quite easy to correct through supplementation. The exact Vitamin D supplement dosage varies depending on whether or not one is deficient and how deficient. A basic maintenance dose that is suggested for those who do have normal levels is 1000 iu.
When reviewing your Vitamin D levels however one most also take into consideration where you live in the world and what the climate is like there. In North America, because of our winter season when we have less light and we spend more time indoors we must be
extremely conscientious about maintaining our Vitamin D levels and may need to take a higher dose of Vitamin D supplement in the winter months or increase our food sources.