As a fair-skinned gal of Irish descent… I’m prone to grow freckles and get very very pink. Unlike my husband who gets a gorgeous tan every year, I have to be careful. But I certainly don’t avoid the sun. Ever.
But wait, isn’t the sun the root of all evil? Skin cancer, melanoma and awful peeling skin? If the sun going to kill me… how come my ancestors survived?
Vitamin D is an essential hormone and we are designed to get lots of it by being outside in the sun, moving around outdoors and enjoying the world around us. The challenge is that many of us spend our days inside working avoiding the sun between 10-2 pm, wearing sunscreen with a high SPF every day under our makeup and long light layers we can become very deficient.
This is a big deal.
Vitamin D is critical for our immune system. Many of us know about Vitamin D for bone health - Vitamin D helps regulate calcium and phosphorus absorption and excretion in the body. This is why many products are fortified with a synthetic version.
Run of the mill health issues like coughs, colds, allergies, flus and other common issues are related to low Vitamin D levels that compromise our immune function. Vitamin D also keeps our immune system communicating so that we reduce our risk of more serious issues like Type 2 Diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, cancers and other autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Low Vitamin D is also related to thyroid disease, mental health issues and hormone health. Adequate vitamin D is essential for digestive health as well, and when we are deficient we get leaky gut.
When we lack Vitamin D our immune system loses touch with itself and we are more likely to get sick.
Who is at risk?
- Indoor workers and kids spending the best part of the day out of the sun
- Older adults, who are less efficiently able to generate Vitamin D
- Darker skinned individuals
- The melanin in dark skin actively blocks Vitamin D conversion in the skin, so the darker your tan, the less efficiently you will be able to absorb Vitamin D. Lighter skinned people and babies absorb much more efficiently.
- Canadians (the geography effect).
- We are only able to effectively absorb it from May-October in Southern Ontario
- This is related to the angle of UVB light coming from the sun. Sunny winter days offer no opportunity for vitamin D.
- A good rule of thumb is if your shadow is longer than you are tall, you’re not making much vitamin D.
- Breastfed infants (sometimes)
- Formula is supplemented with vitamin D so it is thought that breastfed babies are at higher risk of deficiency
- Mother’s vitamin D status during pregnancy will affect baby’s levels. Mother’s that have excellent vitamin D status and who breastfeed their babies have babies with vitamin D levels similar to that of infants that are supplementing with Vitamin D
- Concealing clothing, particularly UV blocking, all the time
- Long layers can be very helpful, however, once you’ve been outside in the sun to help prevent a burn
- Digestive issues eg. Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Small Intestinal Bowel Overgrowth (SIBO)
- 25-OH Vitamin D levels tend to be lower in people with digestive conditions, as Vitamin D helps maintain tight junctions within the intestines. With lower levels suggesting immune compromise, these junction become “leaky” and food sensitivities, inflammation and immune activation result
- Magnesium deficiency
- Nutrients rarely act in isolation. If magnesium is low, vitamin D absorption is impaired. If Vitamin D levels are low, calcium is not well absorbed either.
Where can you get it?
- Sun – our best source
- Fatty fish, like canned salmon with bones
- Egg yolk
- Beef liver
- Fortified foods like dairy, and non-dairy alternatives like almond milk
- Test your vitamin D (25-OH) to get a baseline
- Naturopathic Doctors and family doctors can test, however, OHIP doesn’t cover testing, unless you have osteoporosis. It costs about $36 in Ontario to test blood 25-OH Vitamin D
- Your levels should ideally be around 100-200 nmol/L. Even lower levels within the normal reference range can put you at increased risk for other health conditions
- Get daily sun, outside in nature.
- If you can’t get outside, at least sit near a window
- Daily sun time for 10-15 minutes with maximal skin exposure, or roughly half the time it would take you to burn
- Take a vacation somewhere sunny in the winter
- Travelling somewhere hot and sunny in the winter months can be helpful, as Vitamin D has a half-life of 2-4 weeks (ie. Your trip to sunny Cancun will help elevate your Vitamin D levels for 4-8 weeks afterwards)
- Track exposure via DMinder, a great free app
- Can track blood levels of Vitamin D, skin tone, sun exposure and supplement intake so that you know how much vitamin D you are absorbing each "sun session"
- I love this option because you also get burn warnings and sunscreen reminders and notifications for your best sun opportunities where you live
- Be sun smart
- Know your tolerance.
- Use shade and wear long layers AFTER you've been out in the sun ie. before you start to burn.
- Sunscreen should be your LAST line of defense, not your only one!
- Use a good quality natural sunscreen that you like using natural blocking ingredients like zinc or titanium oxide.
- Avoid sweat-proof, dry touch sunscreens that disrupt hormones, containing ingredients like oxybenzene, retinyl palmitate
- Reapply every 1-2 hours and after sweating and swimming
- Do your reseach. Check out the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database – a research-driven review of personal care products – publishes an annual sunscreen guide. Check it out to see how yours stack up.
- If you choose to supplement KNOW your baseline levels
- Vitamin D over 1000 IU per day is a prescription in Ontario and self-prescribing is NOT recommended
- Work with a licensed health care provider to help determine your ideal levels based on your blood levels and your lifestyle.
Vitamin D keeps your brain sharp, skin glowing, immune system humming along and is an essential part of your life. Practice safe sun, but don't fear it!
Keep on the sunny side,
Resources:On Vitamin D supplementation in food: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/80/6/1710S.full