How To Get Your Vitamin D

In our pursuit of health and wellness, we often focus on what we put into our bodies—real foods, nutrient-dense meals, and the specifics of diet. An equally vital, yet sometimes overlooked component of health is the role of sunshine and its critical contribution to our vitamin D levels.

Vitamin D, often referred to as the "sunshine vitamin," is unique because our bodies can produce it when our skin is exposed to sunlight. Unlike other vitamins that we must obtain from our diet, vitamin D synthesis is primarily triggered by ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun. This makes sunlight a crucial factor in maintaining optimal vitamin D levels.

The Multifaceted Benefits 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

  • Regulates bone mineralization and metabolism and improves bone health by supporting calcium absorption in the gut
  • Controls the expression of over 200 genes
  • Modulates the immune system and supports the immune system fighting infection
  • Controls cell growth
  • Lowers cardiovascular disease risk
  • Improves fertility
  • Assists in neuromuscular function
  • Helps prevent autoimmune disease
  • Encourages mood regulation and supports mental well-being

Vitamin D Deficiency

It is estimated that up to 75% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D. This is not surprising, considering our 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
  • Depression
  • Slow or impaired wound healing
  • Bone loss
  • Hair loss
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Asthma

Those most at risk include:

  • People aged 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 and obese individuals
  • Those who have fat malabsorption, liver or kidney disorder or take medications that affect vitamin D absorption.
  • People with darker skin

Getting Your Vitamin D

Vitamin D can be obtained in 3 ways

1. Sunshine

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 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. 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.

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 regardless 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.  

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.

2. Food

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 part of a real-food diet 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.

Read more on the benefits of real food here

3. Supplements

Often, sufficient natural sun exposure is unobtainable, and a supplement may be necessary to help restore levels.

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. Make sure to test your levels and have your health care professional review your dosage.

Choosing Wisely

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.

Read on here for more on choosing your supplements

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 diet) and is made in the gut by your flora.

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In Conclusion

In the journey towards optimal health and wellness, embracing the sun and ensuring adequate vitamin D levels is as crucial as the foods we eat. By balancing sun exposure with dietary practices, we can enhance our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. So, step outside, soak up the sun, and let the sunshine vitamin work its wonders on your health.

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