The Sunshine Vitamin

Does the thought of lounging in the sun elicit nightmares of crow’s feet and sun spots? Do you lather yourself in pints of SPF 35 and umbrella your head in a (let’s admit it) ridiculous-looking floppy hat? Have you convinced yourself that long-sleeved linen really does “breathe” on a sizzling summer day? Well, according to leading researchers, it may be time that women make peace with the sun again. No, they’re not recommending that you strip down to a bikini and spend your afternoon in the garden, but they are acknowledging a strong link between the deficiency of vitamin D, which is produced by the skin in the presence of direct sunlight, and a myriad of diseases afflicting women—diseases like osteoporosis, breast and colorectal cancers, multiple sclerosis, depression, and heart disease. The good news is that depending on your skin color, age, and the region in which you live, your body can produce enough vitamin D to help fight these afflictions in as little as 15 minutes per day. How can a few rays of sunshine elicit such overwhelming affect? Grab your sunglasses, head outdoors, and buckle in for a little science.

New Findings on Vitamin D and the Important Roles it Plays in Your Health

By Jessica Capets Chevalier

Vitamin D is not really a vitamin at all but a precursor hormone created when UVB wavelengths of light strike bare skin. After being created, vitamin D takes two paths in the body. The first is to the kidneys where it maintains blood calcium levels (vitamin D is necessary for the body’s absorption of calcium) and moderates the actions of over 1,000 genes. The second path is towards cells where it is converted into the cancer-fighting substance calcitriol, “the most potent steroid hormone in the human body,” according to the Vitamin D Council, a non-profit organization committed to educating both citizens and professionals about the dangers of vitamin D deficiency. However, and this is important, the vital second path gets its chance to act if, and only if, your body has the vitamin D needed for the kidneys plus a bit extra. So what quantity provides that extra?

In a sense, researchers are still making that determination. Within only the past months, the American Academy of Pediatrics has doubled the recommended daily dose for infants, children, and teens to 400 International Units (IU) per day, with some publications recommending higher doses still. (Vitamin D deficiency in children, resulting from deficiency in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, is a suspected contributor to autism.) Harvard Health has increased its suggested daily dosage for adults from 400 IU to 800–1,000 IU, and some experts, such as Marcelle Pick, an OB/GYN Nurse Practitioner and author on www.WomenToWomen.com, recommend as much as 2,000 IU daily. What is certain, however, is that deficiency is widespread among American women. Pick has found that nearly 85% of her patients are deficient, a finding reaffirmed by her colleagues. The majority of American women, then, can safely assume that they need more D to achieve optimal, disease-fighting benefits.

Assessing individual vitamin D needs, however, can be tricky. The Vitamin D Council explains, “As a general rule, old people need more than young people, big people need more that little people, fat people need more than skinny people, northern people need more than southern people, dark-skinned people need more than fair-skinned people, winter people need more than summer people, sunblock lovers need more than sunblock haters, sun-phobes need more than sun worshipers, and ill people may need more than well people.” Not only that, but judging how much vitamin D you’ve produced via sunshine isn’t a simple equation; glass, clothing, and sunscreen are all barriers to UVB waves, and the quantity of exposure, the season, the latitude, and skin color all affect the rate of production. For example, dark-skinned women have greater deficiencies than light-skinned women. Dark skin, originating from geographically-sunnier environments, historically has had more opportunity to produce vitamin D and, therefore, takes longer to do so. Lighter-skinned people of European ancestry, out of an evolutionary necessity, create more vitamin D with a smaller amount of sun. At present, the only certain way of analyzing your vitamin D levels is through a blood test; the Vitamin D Council recommends levels between 50 and 80 ng/ml year-round. Tests cost about $100 in a lab and require a doctor’s order.

How can you acquire that prevention without developing a nasty burn in the process? Start by educating yourself about the right kind of exposure. Realbuzz.com advises, “Fair-skinned people only need around 15 minutes of direct sunlight to produce enough vitamin D to last for several days. Although people with darker skin may need more exposure. It’s not suggested that this exposure to the sun has to be every day; instead, a few short exposures a week is considered to be plenty. These exposures could be fitted into your day-to-day activities – for example, try walking in the sun at every given opportunity or even driving with the windows rolled down. It’s not hard to get your sun exposure if you try to fit it around your daily routine.”

The Vitamin D Council takes a more aggressive stance, “…judiciously expose as much skin as possible to direct midday sunlight for one-quarter of the time it takes for one’s skin to turn red during those months when the proper ultraviolet light occurs at one’s latitude (usually late spring, summer and early fall). Do not get sunburned. Vitamin D production is already maximized before your skin turns pink and further exposure does not increase levels of vitamin D but may increase your risk of skin cancer. Black patients may need 5 to 10 times longer in the sun than white patients, depending on skin type.” Keep in mind, for every 20 to 30 minutes of sun, the skin produces approximately 20,000 IU of vitamin D. Enjoying lunch on the porch, a walk to the bank during work hours, even a few moments of relaxation (gasp) on a park bench will reward you with more than a clear mind.

If you’re concerned about any sun exposure at all, consider the logic of Dr. Mike Holick, author of the book The UV Advantage, who points out that antioxidants greatly enhance the body’s ability to handle sunlight. Increasing your intake of powerful antioxidants like those found in pomegranate juice, blueberries, and acai berries goes a long way towards healthy absorption of sun.

It’s important to remember that vitamin D can be acquired through diet as well. Besides D-fortified foods (certain milk, cereals, and orange juice), vitamin D is naturally occurring in fatty fishes such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines, as well as in fish liver oil. However, while these foods are an excellent supplemental source of vitamin D, they cannot, in and of themselves, provide enough vitamin D to fill the body’s needs. Says Dr. Holick , “A person would have to drink ten tall glasses of vitamin D fortified milk each day just to get minimum levels of vitamin D into their diet.”

Supplements can close the gap between recommendations and reality. Unlike naturally-occurring D, however, an excess of supplemental D can be toxic, though the Vitamin D Council reports that the threat of toxicity is a danger only in doses exceeding 10,000 IU. To be safe, experts recommend a daily D3 supplement of 1000–2000 IU. Similarly, the Council advocates a daily allowance of 1000–2000 IU each day for individuals with “some sun exposure.” But remember, working with your personal physician is key to discovering and maintaining your optimal level.

So why is there so much attention on vitamin D now? For over a century, doctors have known that sunshine has healing properties—it has been used to fight tuberculosis, rickets, and seasonal affective disorder for years— but, until recently, they haven’t known why. Dr. Holick explains, “The answer seems to lie in the fact that most tissues and cells in the human body (and not just those in the intestine and bone that help fix calcium) have receptors for vitamin D, suggesting that the vitamin is needed for overall optimal health. Vitamin D’s assistance in helping the body absorb calcium is an obvious boon in battling osteoporosis and breaks, but its more complex processes boost D to near-miracle heights.”

With all that women have been told about the relationship of sun and skin cancer, sunshine as a prevention for cancer seems wholly counterintuitive. After all, regarding cancer and sun, we had long put the chicken-or-the-egg debate behind us. But did we do so too soon? WebMD reports that vitamin D may help prevent cancer in a number of ways: by maintaining healthy cells with normal life spans, by discouraging out-of-control cell reproduction, and by hindering the formation of new blood vessels for tumors. Dr. Cedrick Garland at the University of California San Diego projects that 2000 IU of D daily would result in a 50% reduction in the incidence of colon cancer. Similarly, a 50% reduction in breast cancer would result from intakes of 3500 IU daily, though that level exceeds the recommended allowances.

Cancer isn’t the only deadly disease threatened by the power of vitamin D. Harvard researchers have found that individuals with the highest amount of vitamin D in their blood have a 62% less chance of developing multiple sclerosis than those with the lowest levels. And according to All About Multiple Sclerosis, a markedly higher incidence of the disease occurs in regions north of 40 degrees latitude, those farther from the equator and with lesser overall sunshine and lower UV levels.

Mental health experts have relied on the sunshine cure for years. Though the direct correlation between vitamin D deficiency and major depression is not yet proven, it stands to reason that as humans have lessened their exposure to sun via industrialization (we drive rather than walk, buy our veggies off grocery shelves rather than tug them from the earth, enjoy afternoon talk shows rather than a stroll with friends), we have become increasingly more depressed. Whether vitamin D has a profound effect on major depression, doctors cannot say, but we’ve all felt the John Denver-esque lift of sunshine on our shoulders after a hard afternoon at the office. Are our bodies trying to tell us something?

Even heart disease, the number one killer of American women (cancer is second), loosens its grasp to the power of D. In early 2008, the American Heart Association announced that individuals with low levels of vitamin D had a 62% greater threat of cardiovascular risk than those with higher levels. Not only does D reduce inflammation related to heart problems (and even periodontal disease), but it may also help regulate blood pressure and reduce cholesterol says The World’s Healthiest Foods.

For American women, one thing is certain: vitamin D deficiency is both wholly dangerous and wholly preventable. Spending a few minutes outdoors each afternoon is a healthy habit, capable of not only improving but also prolonging your life. A little sunshine vitamin goes a long way.

Jessica Capets Chevalier is the owner of the Alchemy Spice Company and has lived in Chattanooga for six years. She was raised in Western Pennsylvania and earned a BA in English at Geneva College and her MFA in Writing at Penn State University. She can be reached at jessica@alchemyspicecompany.com.

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