As we approach the fall months, we can say goodbye to 14 hours of sunlight and hello to later sunrises and earlier sunsets. Most of us do not realize that our bodies are designed to thrive in the sun, yet the vast majority of us are deprived of the sun. Sunlight has many actions on the human body including but not limited to:
- Triggering the production of p53 - an enzyme that can destroy cancer cells
- Triggering nitric oxide (NO) production - This can lower blood pressure and lower the risk for heart disease and strokes
- Regulating our circadian clocks - This is involved in melatonin (sleep hormone) and serotonin (‘feel good’ hormone) production and balance.
Most importantly though, the sun is responsible for triggering Vitamin D production in the body. Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine nutrient”. We are able to make Vitamin D on our own with the help of the sun. UVB rays from the sun react with cholesterol in the skin to produce Vitamin D3 (active form of Vitamin D) in the body. This vitamin can travel throughout the body and it interacts with almost every cell.
Unfortunately, living in Canada Vitamin D is a widespread deficiency throughout the year, but mostly during the fall and winter months when sunlight is lacking. This makes the summer months ideal for ensuring optimal vitamin D stores in the body.
Why Is Vitamin D So Important?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble steroid hormone that is required for many important functions in the body. A deficiency in Vitamin D can contribute to conditions like, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), increased risk of fractures, low immune system and even depression. Here is why our body needs Vitamin D:
- To Maintain Healthy Bones - Vitamin D increases calcium absorption which leads to optimal bone health and function. Supplementing with Vitamin D can decrease the risk of falls and fractures.
- To Support the Immune System - Vitamin D can help the body fight off infections by building the barriers of skin, lungs and gastrointestinal tract so unwanted microbes cannot enter through these routes. Vitamin D can also activate immune cells to kill unwanted microbes.
- To Boost Mood and Energy - Vitamin D helps to support a happy mood and supports brain health preventing cognitive decline.
- To Reduce the Risk for Developing Diabetes - Vitamin D has a direct effect on the function of the pancreas which in turn has an effect on insulin secretion.
- To Lower the Risk of Autoimmune Conditions - Vitamin D deficiency has shown to increase the risk of autoimmune diseases like MS, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.
- To Help In Pregnancy - Women who are deficient in Vitamin D while pregnant can increase their baby’s chance of developing asthma, allergies and Type I diabetes.
Where Do We Get Vitamin D?
- Sun Exposure - Most of our Vitamin D is made from sunlight exposure. The UV rays help to convert Vitamin D precursors in the skin into the active form of Vitamin D. It is also important to keep in mind that safe exposure to sun can be challenging when trying to increase Vitamin D stores. Sun risks include: aging skin, and increased risk of skin cancers. Consider the following 4 factors when using sun exposure as a means to increase Vitamin D stores:
- Time of day - Ideal time for Vitamin D is in the morning until noon. It is estimated that 15-20 minutes of exposure is recommended daily to avoid burning. However, this only provides about 200 IU for fair skinned individuals.
- Body Exposure - A large surface area of your body needs to be exposed to the sun in order to synthesize Vitamin D in the body. Areas of the body that need to be exposed include, chest, abdomen and back.
- Skin Pigmentation - Skin colour can impact Vitamin D absorption in the body. Fair skin individuals are able to convert Vitamin D into its active form easily. Dark skinned individuals have higher amounts of melanin and thus require more time in the sun to convert Vitamin D to its active form. Therefore, darker skinned individuals are at a higher risk for developing Vitamin D deficiency.
- Sunscreen Use - The use of sunscreen during the summer months can inhibit Vitamin D production. Keep in mind that there is risk of exposure to harmful UV rays with respect to skin cancer. So, during the summer months make sure to stick to the sun safety recommendations and reduce skin cancer risk by sunscreen use, hats and staying out of the sun at peak hours. The sun emits both UVA and UVB radiation. Many sunscreens only block UVB rays and still allow UVA rays to enter the skin. For optimal sunscreen protection use natural zinc oxide sunscreen that blocks and deflects both UVA and UVB rays. Keep in mind that botanical oils like coconut oil, jojoba oil and sea buckthorn oil can naturally protect the skin from radiation damage.
- Foods - Some Vitamin D can be acquired through the diet. Such foods include: Salmon, mackerel, sardines, cod liver oil, tuna, beef liver and egg yolks. However, the quantities present in food are small and do not maintain adequate vitamin D status.
- Supplementation of Vitamin D3 - Since foods carry a low amount of Vitamin D and sun exposure comes with its risk, supplementation is very, very important.
- The recommended dosage for Vitamin D supplementation is generally between 400 IU - 2000 IU/day depending on your age and risk factors. Vitamin D supplements come in two forms: D2 and D3. D3 is the active form of Vitamin D and is the best supplemental form.
Why Test Vitamin D?
Get your Vitamin D levels tested every winter. A simple blood test can assess your levels of Vitamin D (25-hydroxy or 1,25 hydroxy Vitamin D). Optimal levels of Vitamin D on blood work should be between 75-100 nmol/L. This simple test can provide you with insight into whether or not you are deficient in Vitamin D. Alternatively, there are online questionnaires that can help to decipher if you have a deficiency in Vitamin D. Check out Vit-Assess Vitamin D Deficiency test!
If you are deficient in Vitamin D the recommended dose of 1000 IU/day may not be enough for you and a higher amount of Vitamin D may be required. Do keep in mind that Vitamin D at very high doses (25,000-60,000 IU/day for 1-4 months) can be toxic to our bodies as it is stored in fatty tissue, making it very important to get tested before supplementing with high doses of Vitamin D. It is best to talk to your healthcare provider to determine which dose is best for you.
Vitamin D is a fat soluble essential nutrient that plays a number of important roles in the body. The 3 sources of Vitamin D include, sunlight, food and supplementation. With sun exposure, it requires bare skin exposure during peak UVB times for about 15 minutes. However, this can vary depending on age and skin colour. Since the levels obtained from food are low and the risks associated with sun exposure is high, supplementation with Vitamin D may be necessary for you. As mentioned earlier, it is best to get your Vitamin D levels tested before supplementing with a high dose due to the risks of toxicity.
** Disclaimer: The advice is in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace the care of a Naturopathic physician.