Scientists have encouraged the idea that we should avoid being in the sun in order to minimize the chance of getting skin cancer. If this is true, why is almost half the population vitamin D deficient? Were they wrong this whole time? Have we been lied to? As it turns out, many factors go into determining your risk level from sun exposure and vitamin D deficiency. Research has even proven that the sun has many benefits for our health and longevity.
What Is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a very important vitamin for the human body. Without it, your body couldn’t function properly and ultimately would shut down.
Vitamin D is made in your body when you’re exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays from sun exposure, which starts vitamin D synthesis. Your liver and kidneys break it down so your body can utilize its benefits for bone health, mood, and overall well-being.
You can also get vitamin D by eating foods that contain it. There are two types of vitamin D. Vitamin D2, also known as ergocalciferol, is mostly found in plants and yeast. Vitamin D3, known also as cholecalciferol, is found in many animal products, like eggs and fatty fish, and is more effective at raising your body’s vitamin D level.
The Damaging Effects of Vitamin D Deficiency
Over one billion people globally are low in this beneficial vitamin. Lacking in this important nutrient can cause many health problems such as inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease), bone loss, chronic inflammation, depression, and fatigue.
Animal products like egg yolks, milk, fatty fish, beef liver, and grain all have vitamin D3.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and has been found in many of our cells, tissues, and even some genes that are related to infection, autoimmune disorders, and some cancers. Without it, your body can’t properly absorb other important nutrients such as calcium and maintain bone density. Rickets, a disease that softens your bones, seems to be making a comeback mostly in industrialized cities. Low vitamin D levels have also been associated with a greater prevalence of severe illness and mortality.
There are many different opinions on the amount of vitamin D we should be taking daily, thus making it difficult to ascertain the precise recommended amount per day. Supplementation has grown increasingly popular to make sure individuals reach their optimum vitamin D levels. Harvard Medical School recommends adults 19 years and older get a minimum of 600 IU of vitamin D a day. As for individuals 70 years and older, the daily recommendation is 800 IU. Meanwhile, other medical organizations such as The Endocrine Society recommend 1,500 to 2,000 IU daily to maintain optimal levels.
Vitamin D Blockers
Vitamin D supplements are readily available, and we all have access to the sun, so why are so many people deficient in vitamin D? One reason is how common obesity has become. It has tripled from 1975 to 2020, and it’s not slowing down. With obesity comes many health problems that can impede your life and reduce your overall lifespan. Unsurprisingly, vitamin D deficiency has a strong correlation to obesity and heart disease. A 2019 study showed how obesity influences vitamin D levels. In this study, they found that a person with a high body fat index needed more vitamin D to compensate for their body’s overall mass. Fortunately, the deficiency didn’t affect their bone tissue, but it could have a negative impact on their organs. Hence, the high obesity rate could be one reason why there is such a profound vitamin D deficiency in America.
Vitamin D deficiency has a strong correlation to obesity and heart disease.
Another reason is that people with darker skin naturally have a high tolerance to the sun, causing them to intake less vitamin D than their lighter-skinned counterparts. About 41.6% of adults in America are vitamin D deficient, but the number goes up astronomically with 82.1% of African Americans and 69.2% of Hispanic Americans. Another implication is that living far above or below the equator has a profound effect on vitamin D levels because UVB light becomes weaker the farther it is from the equator. Even with consistent sun exposure through the summer months, most people living in the higher northern hemispheres and lower southern hemispheres will be more deficient.
The Southern Sweden Study
From 1990 to 1992, a study was done in southern Sweden, consisting of a total of 29,518 Swedish-born women, with 1,000 women representing each age group from 25 to 64 years of age. All were cancer-free and were chosen from the general population from a randomized selection to represent 20% of the total female Swedish population. Many aspects were taken to control the study’s outcome such as the amount of sun exposure, smoking habits, alcohol intake, past pregnancies, body fat percentage, and amount of daily exercise.
After 20 years, they had a follow-up analysis of their overall health. There were 2,545 deaths among the 29,518 women who had participated in this study. Their findings from this study concluded that the women who avoided the sun had greater mortality rates than the highest sun exposure group. What was also found from the study was that the women with average sun exposure weren’t at high risk for melanoma and had lower mortality rates than the avoidant sun exposure group.
The official findings of the study are that UV rays in moderation aren’t found to be dangerous and are actually beneficial to overall health, but it did find that sun exposure increases your chances of getting melanoma if you have had a long relationship with tanning beds and have fair skin.
Women who avoided the sun had greater mortality rates than the highest sun exposure group.
The Benefits of Getting Sunshine and Optimal Nutrition
Eating a nutritionally dense diet and engaging in an active lifestyle are the first steps to preventing deficiencies of all natures. Vitamin D is not only made in the body by sunshine, but it’s also a nutrient we can eat. Animal products such as egg yolks, milk, fatty fish, beef liver, and grain all have small amounts of vitamin D3 in them and are helpful when trying to keep a high intake of vitamin D.
Harvard Medical recommends around 10-15 minutes of sunshine per day under the right circumstances. This recommendation can vary depending on the season, time of day, and how close to the equator you live. Even pollution can lessen the amount of UV rays you’re exposed to. The time of day when the sun’s rays are most powerful is from 10am to 4pm, meaning you can spend much more time outdoors without burning before or after those hours.
While getting daily sunshine is important, spending hours in the sun on a very sunny day without any kind of sun protection is never optimal for your skin’s health. Mineral-based sunscreen, wide-brim hats, and long garments can be very useful when the UV rays are very high. People with red hair and fair skin are most prone to burning and getting melanoma, so precautions are recommended to prevent long-term skin damage.
What we can learn from all these findings is that there are many reasons vitamin D deficiency exists. Number one is obesity, but with the help of an active lifestyle, a diet high in vitamin D-rich foods, and a healthy amount of sun exposure, we can prevent not just vitamin D deficiency, but all kinds of future health risks. So, go enjoy some mid-morning rays or some late afternoon sunshine, without fear of the sun’s harmful rays. (Unless you’re hypersensitive to the sun, of course!) It just might be beneficial for your overall health.