Face the sun, spring has sprung!
Spring is officially here (yay!). If, like us, you are in the UK or in a similarly sun-deprived area, you might be finding yourself periodically stopping dead on the street, your face intuitively turned toward the sun, soaking up her elusive rays. The immediate sense of well-being and comfort that we feel from the sun doesn’t just come from its warmth and, frankly, rarity. It also comes from our essential need for vitamin D.
I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to you that vitamin D is an important nutrient. But do you know why vitamin D is so essential? And even as the warmer months approach, will we get enough from the sun alone, and what is the best way to ensure we get enough of this critical vitamin?
Why do we need Vitamin D?
First things first - vitamin D is important for its key role in regulating calcium and phosphate absorption in the body. As such, it is associated with the health of the body’s musculoskeletal system. Many of the important substances needed for our bodies to function, work hand-in-hand. This means that you may be getting enough calcium in your system, but without the right amount of vitamin D – you’re not actually getting all the benefits. Vitamin D deficiency can cause weakness in the bones alongside other serious diseases and in children it can cause rickets.
There are also other more subtle, yet potentially serious, issues associated with low vitamin D levels, such as depression, low energy, poor functioning of the immune system, and bone pain. These are issues that can affect our day-to-day functioning and overall wellbeing. Studies have also shown that vitamin D prevents certain types of cancer, may help treat diabetes, multiple sclerosis and heart disease although further studies are required for definitive conclusions.
Why is it so hard to get enough of it?
Vitamin D is a special type of vitamin because unlike its peers, it is actually a hormone produced in the human body when your skin is exposed to sunshine (from the ulitraviolet, or UV, rays of the sun). Like some other vitamins – such as vitamin A and E – it is a fat-soluble compound, meaning that it dissolves in fat, but unlike many other vitamins, it is difficult to obtain adequate amounts from diet alone. Even though certain fat rich foods – eggs, meat, liver etc. – and non-fat rich ones like kale, contain some vitamin D, the levels are low and we are unlikely to eat enough of these to meet our recommended daily intake. Even on a balanced and healthy diet, we may be getting only as much as 10% of our vitamin D needs from food.
This leaves many of us at risk of low or deficient Vitamin D levels, which is why recently, public health authorities have warned the UK population (and abroad) about the widespread risk of low or deficient vitamin D levels. They do this for a number of reasons.
Firstly, if like me, you are excited by the sight of the sun any time of the year, it may be helpful to know that the sun is actually not strong enough to facilitate vitamin D production in the months of October – March (in a place like the UK). Also, there is no official minimal recommended amount of sunlight, so it can be difficult to know how much is enough. However, considering most of us spend sunlight hours indoors often in our offices (and windows block UV rays), we are likely not receiving enough sun exposure to obtain the requisite amount of vitamin D.
Furthermore, many of us are wisely heeding to warnings against over-exposure to the sun and therefore tend cover up using sunscreen or clothing. After all, the same UV rays we need for our vitamin D raise our risk of skin cancer, and without skin exposure, we don’t get our vitamin D (you see the dilemma...). It’s incumbent upon each of us to make sure we achieve a good balance between protecting from the sun and benefitting from it.
Furthermore, there are certain groups of people who may be at a higher risk of deficiency, including the elderly, less mobile (who are less likely to spend sufficient time outdoors), those who are overweight or obese, pregnant or breastfeeding women, people with darker skin tones, those suffering from certain medical conditions (cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, Coeliac disease, etc.) and use of certain medications. Finally, air pollution also lower the reach of UV rays, so city dwellers may not be getting enough vitamin D, even when the sun is out!
In the UK, Public Health England recommends that people in higher risk groups consider taking a vitamin D supplement at a dose of 10mcg per day (400 IU) all year around (not just during the winter months). It is important to remember, that there are a range of different strengths of vitamin D sold over the counter and as Public Health England warn, if does much higher than recommended are taken, there is a risk of over-dosing on vitamin D and this comes with its own concerns.
Here’s my advice:
Seek out the sun when it comes out, expose your skin (not just your face) to the sun when you can, but makes sure to wear sun block during the hottest time of day. Take your breaks outdoors if you can, go for sun-worshipping walks, it’s doctor’s orders! If you are otherwise well, consider taking a low dose over the counter supplement that is within a safe range. If you in an ‘at risk’ group for vitamin D deficiency, speak to your doctor who can test your baseline levels and identify a management plan moving forward.