With summer coming, the common public health messages tell us to avoid sun exposure and to wear sunscreen at all times. While too many UVA and UVB rays can cause damage at the cellular level and contribute to disease, three out of four Americans are vitamin D deficient (Lipman, 2010). Therefore, these messages may actually be causing more harm than good.
Sun, after all, is a magnificent thing! I’m looking out my window right now, and the vast amount of rain and recent bout of sun that we have received is quickly transforming nature into vibrant colors. The smell of life coming back in the air is all due to sun power and rain. It can have similar effects on us, too, as a both a mysterious and scientifically-proven force for health.
The light component itself has an important effect on intercellular function and our biological circadian rhythms, which in turn has an important effect on overall health, cognition, and wellbeing (Kent, et.al., 2009).
The slight coloring (not burning) of skin with sun exposure signifies vitamin D production, which is an essential component affecting at least 1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body (Mead, 2008). Amongst numerous benefits, this hormone-like vitamin boasts cancer prevention, proper bone growth and brain health, and a 60-70% reduction of autoimmune diseases.
Because it is tough to consume adequate vitamin D from food sources, a proper amount of vitamin D synthesis requires daily sun exposure. Unfortunately, two main problems are inhibiting our ability to synthesize adequate amounts, causing an epidemic of health consequences related to vitamin D deficiency.
1) Sun Exposure
Whether due to busy lives or living at higher latitudes, limited sun exposure is a primary cause of vitamin D deficiency. In fact, researchers have found that people who live in higher latitudes are more prone to vitamin D deficiency, cancer development, and death (Lipman, 2010).
2) Sunscreen: Toxic Products and Overuse
Another cause of vitamin D deficiency is sunblock, because when sunblock is used at any SPF, 100% of vitamin D production is stopped. This helps explain why 30 - 40% of people living in Miami are vitamin D deficient (Spiegler, 2010).
In addition, sunscreen products typically contain harmful toxins that are quickly absorbed into our skin, which can cause damaging byproducts like hormone disruption, free radicals, and even cancer (Environmental Working Group, 2013).
What, then, is the best advice for proper sun exposure and vitamin D synthesis?
1) Supplement with Vitamin D3.
At DBC, we often encourage most patients to take vitamin D during the long Michigan winters in the form of D3, or cholecalciferol, because it is the most bioavailable form in our bodies. Supplement quality is crucial as well, as independent government studies show that more than one-third of manufacturers do not contain the amount on the label, and may have additives and preservatives thrown in the mix as well.
In my analysis of vitamin D, I have also found that as it gets closer to the expiration date, most vitamin D supplements have next to nothing left inside. That’s why I’m so picky with what I recommend, and why Nature’s Remedies carries one of the most effective forms of vitamin D3, called “High D.”
When sun and sun exposure is plentiful, like in the summer, back off on vitamin D3 supplementation, and aim for at least 30 minutes of sun with your legs, arms, and head exposed. You may need to work up to this amount of time if you have fair skin – try 10 minutes at a time to avoid burning.
Most cancers are due to either burning or too little of sun exposure, and I feel that a misunderstanding (or oversimplification) of the sun’s involvement in skin cancer is responsible for thousands of deaths each year due to breast cancer that could have been prevented with sufficient vitamin D due to its critical role in immune function.
2) Proper sunscreen use.
After you’ve gotten your 30 minutes of sun exposure for the day, it’s best to stay in the shade or cover up with clothing and a hat.
If you are unable to stay in the shade or cover up with clothing, it is best to use a natural sunscreen of SPF 15 or 30, which provide 93.3% and 96.7% protection, respectively. Beware that most sunscreens contain harmful ingredients like parabens and artificial scents and oils. Either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide is necessary for actual sun (UV) protection, though research is limited as to whether or not we are actually absorbing these large molecules.
Also, anything greater than SPF 30 is a marketing gimmick that greatly increases toxin exposure for only a 2 – 3% increase in protection.
3) Consume foods with vitamin D.
Very few foods naturally have vitamin D. Although fortified foods provide most of the vitamin D in American diets of today, we at DBC don’t encourage eating these processed foods because they are usually more harm than good.
Foods that do contain some vitamin D naturally include fatty fish like salmon and tuna, beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks.
Enjoy the sun this summer, folks, and embrace all of its wonderful benefits!
Kent, Shia, McClure, Leslie, Crosson, William, Arnett, Donna, Wadley, Virginia, Sathiajumar, Nalini. Effect of sunlight exposure on cognitive function among depressed and non-depressed participants: a REGARDS cross-sectional study. Environmental Health
, January 2009: 8:34.http://www.ehjournal.net/content/8/1/34