Vitamin D — the Sunshine Vitamin

The Sun.  It fuels our world.  It's essential to life. The challenge is find the right balance of sun exposure and sun protection.

The Sun. It fuels our world. It's essential to life. We need sunlight to make Vitamin D in our bodies, but the sun's radiation can also cause skin cancer. The challenge is find the right balance of sun exposure and sun protection.

Avoid the sun.  Wear sunblock.  That’s my summer mantra.  Now that I’ve had some skin cancer removed, I’m even more paranoid about sun exposure. 

The darkest time of the year is here, so you’d think I could relax about sun exposure as I enter my annual winter hermit state, covered up and shivering by the hearth.  But no, I have a new worry:  I actually have to get outside to get some sunshine to make Vitamin D.  

Ten to 15 minutes of sunshine (ultraviolet B radiation) three times a week is supposed to be enough for most people, but this is tough in the winter when we’re swathed in fleece. I don’t even like to walk to the mailbox at the end of my driveway when it’s cold.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps the body absorb calcium to form strong bones and teeth and has many other important functions in keeping us healthy.   My dermatologist says that Vitamin D is the hot topic at dermatology conferences these days. Yes, I know, we’ve all heard and read about the wonders and miracles of this vitamin and that vitamin, only to find out later that taking extra this or that doesn’t help and can even hurt. I still have a huge jar of Vitamin E capsules that I thought was supposed to be good for me. Then studies reported Vitamin E as a supplement could be harmful.   Now I’m just hanging onto the almost-full bottle in case it comes back into favor. (By then, of course, if will be expired.)

 Researchers are continually finding out more about the importance of Vitamin D, including that we probably need more than previously thought and that it’s even more essential to maintaining good health than we’ve realized.

Vitamin D could play a role in the prevention of colon, prostate and breast cancers, for example.  The amounts in our bodies might affect our mood and our weight.  Vitamin D really could be essential to a sunny disposition and important in keeping us from piling on the pounds. 

Bottom line: Find out how much Vitamin D you need and get a little sunshine at least every other day.

The following information can get a little tedious, but it’s important, so pay attention.

You need sunshine, but not as much as the people in the posters are getting.  This woman is probably getting enough as she walks past posters on a tanning salon while walking from her home in the Seattle area to the grocery store on Dec. 22, 2008.  (AP Photo/Seattle Post-Intelligencer,  Andy Rogers)

You need sunshine, but not as much as the people in the posters are getting. This woman is probably getting enough as she walks past posters on a tanning salon while walking from her home in the Seattle area to the grocery store on Dec. 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Andy Rogers)

A multi-vitamin with Vitamin D is probably enough for most people, but one size doesn’t fit all.  As you get older, your body isn’t as efficient at making Vitamin D, so you’ll need more Vitamin D in your diet, usually as an additive or a supplement.  My dermatologist told me to get 1,000 units of Vitamin D and a little sunlight (UV-B) every day, but you need to check with your own physician for the right amount for you. (See link below to article about children’s need for Vitamin D.)

Vitamin D isn’t naturally present in most foods, although it’s added to milk and cereal.  It’s in fish, such as salmon and tuna, in egg yolks and in cheese.  It’s also in cod liver oil, which is why we heard stories of a spoonful of it being forced on children in the past.

There’s also a danger of getting too much, which can cause increased kidney stones, nausea and mental confusion.  Vitamin D is stored in the fat, so if you take excessive amounts it’s difficult to get rid of.

We have to find a balance in protecting our skin from sun damage with the need for sunlight to synthesize Vitamin D.  The darker your skin, the more sunlight you need to make Vitamin D.  One of my biology professors suggested that Vitamin D is so important that it’s probably the main reason for differences in skin color.  The closer you to to the poles, the more difficult it is to get enough sunlight to make Vitamin D.  Conversely, darker skin protects against sun damage.

People with higher skin melanin (pigment) content require more time in sunlight to produce the same amount of vitamin D as do people with lower melanin content. As noted below, the amount of time a person requires to produce a given amount of Vitamin D may also depend upon the person’s distance from the equator and on the season of the year.

These people have the right idea.  Get outside in the winter, even if it's cloudy and snowy.  Just don't get frostbite or sunburned.

These people have the right idea. Get outside in the winter, even if it's cloudy and snowy. Just don't get frostbitten or sunburned. I need to take my own advice, because I don't even like to go to the mailbox when it's cold.

Latitude and altitude determine the intensity of UV light. UV-B is stronger at higher altitudes. Latitudes higher than 30° (both north and south) have insufficient UV-B sunlight two to six months of the year, even at midday, according to researchers.  Latitudes higher than 40° have insufficient sunlight to achieve optimum levels of D during six to eight months of the year. In much of the United States, which is between 30° and 45° latitude, six months or more during each year have insufficient UV-B sunlight to produce optimal D levels. In far northern or southern locations, latitudes 45° and higher, even summer sun is too weak to provide optimum levels of vitamin D.  A simple meter is available to determine UV-B levels where you live.

It’s a complicated, but important, subject.  To read more, here are some websites and articles:

NEW: What do you lack? Probably Vitamin D. (New York Times article)

Vitamin D Deficiency May Lurk in Babies

The Vitamin D Miracle.

What is Vitamin D?

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Biology, Diet, Family, Health, Life, Medicine, Nature, Personal

3 responses to “Vitamin D — the Sunshine Vitamin

  1. Very interesting post Cathy.
    I miss the sun (especially over the last two summers of persistent rain) – apart from Vit. D it also gives us the light which raises our spirits and makes us feel good. It’s been interesting over the last few weeks though the weather’s been icy cold it’s also been sunny and everyone looks happy and smiley.

  2. The Vitamin D part notwithstanding, I personally need the sun to keep from going bonkers. Sunshine deprivation is, for me, a very real problem. The weather in my neck of the woods is gloomy for most of the winter, so it’s a real struggle from about November until April.

    I don’t tan, so I don’t even try. But I do need the sunshine.

    I need sunshine, too. We have a lot of sunny days in the Kansas CIty area, which almost makes winter bearable, as long as I’m looking at the sun from the warm indoors.

  3. I am so sorry you had the skin cancer scare – We all suffer a bit from the sunburns we had as children and the lack of knowledge about environmental triggers. I have heard that drinking aloe-vera (health food stores) is very good for building immunity for your skin. A Tex-Mex folk remedy.
    During my research for a light sculpture for the living room I have been finding more and more lights for us in the Northern realms – that have the benefits of sunlight. The Seasonal affective disorder that a lot of us feel (me ++) has lead to the mass marketing of these products and there are some great inexpensive choices.
    I like to think that the Natives in the Northern regions had the right idea – eating mostly fish in the winter but also liver (yuck). There are some mosses and fungi that also contain the prohormones that help our bodies metabolise Vitamin D but I have yet to figure out those and where to get them.
    Gathering firewood and walking a little when we can outside is terrific for us – even all geared up the sun can still get to us. Not always possible with the waves of 10 below weather we have been having. But even in your house with the curtains open the sun still gets in if you let it. I usually keep the curtains shut tight for insulation but I have been opening them for a little light therapy. It seems to be working, if not on me certainly the cats. You are going to have so much sun down-under I am jealous!! Kiss a Koala for us! (Please)
    Thanks for your post. It makes one think about the kids and how we can effect their health for the next twenty years. I heard on the weather you all were going to be in the 60s today????

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s