Vitamin D is often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin”. It is estimated that around 1 billion people worldwide are deficient in this vital nutrient.
Recent world events have increased the amount of time many people are spending indoors and this could be having negative impact on health. In fact, the term ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ was coined in 2005 to describe a list of behavioural and health symptoms (specifically in children) that can be directly related to lack of outdoor time. The time to unplug, turn off, stop, take a breather and get outside is now. This can be challenging with all the required restrictions and distancing, but committing to even a few minutes of outdoor time on a regular, daily basis can have a huge impact on your well-being.
If you are feeling resistant, need a little extra motivation or are concerned you have no time for yet another activity deemed ‘necessary’ to maintain health, consider the multitude of reasons why you cannot afford not to get that fresh air and natural light and daily dose of natural Vitamin D:
What Is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a steroid hormone made in the skin as a response to ultraviolet light. It can also be consumed through diet to varying degrees as well as in supplement form. The most common forms of Vitamin D are ergocalciferol (otherwise known as D2) and cholecalciferol (otherwise known as D3). When skin is exposed to light, specifically the UVB spectrum of ultraviolet light (outdoor sunshine at the optimal time of day and year), it synthesizes vitamin D from a cholesterol precursor.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble, meaning it is best absorbed in the presence of fat, and is also stored in fatty tissues and liver.
Whilst having slightly low levels of Vitamin D might not, on the surface, seem like a big deal, not getting enough can create many problems, and might require more time in the sun than people think.
The Many Functions Of Vitamin D
Vitamin D is best known for regulating the amount of minerals like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous in the body. In recent years, there has been much research into additional functions and roles of Vitamin D in the body
- Regulatesbone mineralization and metabolism
- Controlsthe expression of over 200 genes
- Modulatesthe immune system and supports the immune system fighting infection
- Controlscell growth
- Lowerscardiovascular disease risk
- Assistsin neuromuscular function
- Improvesbone health
- Helpsprevent autoimmune disease
Vitamin D Deficiency
It is estimated that up to 75% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D. This is not surprising, considering modern, indoor lifestyles, obsession with sunscreen, and lack of nutrient-density in the diet.
Extreme vitamin D deficiency manifests itself as rickets, where bones grow soft and weak in children, and osteomalacia, the softening of bones in adults.
Two of the most common symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are chronic fatigue and widespread aches and pain throughout the muscles and joints. Further symptoms include:
- Tiredness, malaise, fatigue
- Frequent infections and catching colds often
- Back pain
- Slow or impaired wound healing
- Bone loss
- Hair loss
- Cardiovascular disease
- Cognitive impairment
Who Is At Risk?
Men and women age 50 or older – the ability to create vitamin D decreases with age
Those who have limited sun exposure - long winter season or air pollution, homebound individuals, those always wearing sunscreen or having limited time outdoors between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm
Overweight people, or those that have a higher muscle mass.
Those who have fat malabsorption, live or kidney disorder or take medications that affect vitamin D absorption.
People with darker skin – the darker the skin the lower the rates of Vitamin D production.
Getting Your Vitamin D
There are three ways of obtaining vitamin D:
The safest (if done properly) and simplest way to get vitamin D is through regular exposure to sunlight. It is also the most fun, and can be convenient when paired with Paleo lifestyle activities and getting outdoors. 15 to 20 minutes of exposure on arms and face at least a few days a week should be enough for most people. Take care to exercise caution in the sun and never be outside so long without protection that your skin burns.
Sunlight provides a mix of ultraviolet rays including UVA and UVB. UVA rays deeply penetrate the layers of the skin and are the those that are often implicated in skin cancers like melanoma. UVB rays, in contrast, are responsible for tanning and the effects of sunburn, and only penetrate the superficial layers. UVA rays are not only deeper penetrating, but are present irregardless of windows, clouds, and foliage, and their strength changes little in intensity throughout the year. UVB rays have much less intensity, especially during the winter months when the sun is lower on the horizon. They also are blocked easily by glass, clouds, clothing, and other barriers.
The SPF factor in a sunscreen refers to a product’s ability to block UVB rays, but not the deeper penetrating, cancer-causing UVA rays. Most sunscreens offer mild, if any protection from UVA rays. Sunscreen is usually applied when there is a perceived chance of getting a burn like at the beach during vacation. However, those same UVA rays are just as present in the cooler spring and fall months, when the lack of UVB rays provides a false sense of security as one does not burn as easily.
Sunscreen use can be detrimental because it is very effective at blocking the rays needed to produce vitamin D, and is not effective at blocking the rays that cause cancer. Not to mention all of the harmful chemicals being applied directly to the skin!
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Smart Sun Exposure
Depending on the fairness of your skin, you will want to expose yourself to sunlight without sunscreen a few times a week, for 10-20 minutes or more. Darker skin will require more sun exposure to generate the needed Vitamin D you need. In general, the recommendations are to stay out for half the amount of time it would take you to burn. If you were wanting a clearer idea of the amount of Vitamin D you produce based on your skin tone and geography, an app called DMinder can help you track it.
Cover yourself or use a safe sunscreen if you are going to be outside for a prolonged period of time. Pay attention to the seasonal differences that affect the strength of the sun including the time of day, latitude, and season as this will impact the strength of the sun’s rays and the duration you can stay exposed for.
You can find small amounts of vitamin D in fatty, cold-water fish like sardines, herring, and mackerel, as well as beef liver and pasture-raised pork. It may come as no surprise that these foods are Paleo friendly and incredibly nutritious. Cod liver oil is also good source of dietary vitamin D. trying to optimize vitamin D levels through diet is unlikely, but adding these foods can support your Vitamin D production as well as provide further nutrients.
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If sufficient natural sun exposure is unobtainable, a supplement may be necessary and a high-quality supplement can help restore levels rapidly.
Note: Elevated levels of vitamin D can cause unwanted calcium buildups in soft tissues like the blood vessels and kidneys. This is usually only seen in people who supplement with high doses of vitamin D. It is easy to get vitamin D levels too high by taking an excessive dose or a prolonged supplement, so make sure to test and have a doctor review your dosage.
Look for a vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) supplement carried in a fat since the vitamin is fat-soluble and will be better absorbed when combined with one. Read the ingredient list (especially the non-medicinal ingredients) to ensure the product contains no other fillers. Most products are simple to take with the droppers provided.
Vitamin D has a synergistic relationship to the other fat-soluble vitamins A and K2, and research shows having adequate levels protects against toxicity. When supplementing with vitamin D, eat vitamin A-rich foods like liver and other organ meats, and fatty, cold-water fish. K2 can be obtained in small amounts from fermented foods and cheese (if dairy is part of your Paleo diet) and is made in the gut by your flora.
Summing It up
Spending time outdoors will also support your mental wellbeing. It naturally boosts levels of serotonin, your ‘feel good’ brain chemical. This may not only improve your positive daily emotions, but may also contribute to a non-pharmacological approach to more serious conditions like depression.
Combining daily sun exposure with some vitamin D-rich foods and supplementing if and when necessary will ensure you are experiencing all the benefits getting outside in the sun provides.