For the past 30 years or so the sun has been the subject of much demonizing. Doctors, dermatologists, health officials, beauty experts, product companies and those darn convincing ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ ads have had us running for cover the second we feel the heat of the sun on our skin. We are well educated on the link between skin cancer and sunlight exposure, but as a result of this over-simplification of facts we have gone from one extreme to the other. We are now so afraid of burning that our bodies are becoming severely deprived of vitamin D – a nutrient best sourced from the sun.
Humans need sunshine. It feels good for a reason. Our bodies use sunlight to help the skin produce the vitamin D it needs to build bones, suppress inflammation, strengthen the immune system and protect against cancer (including skin cancer). Studies show that as many as three out of four Americans suffer from vitamin D deficiency -- it’s thought to be the most common medical condition in the world, affecting over one billion people. Now that we know just how important vitamin D is to achieving and maintaining good health, we can take appropriate action to make sure we are getting enough.
Here are my top six tips for avoiding vitamin D deficiency:
1. Get your daily dose of sun - The best way to increase your vitamin D levels is through safe, smart and limited sunscreen-free exposure to the sun. 10-15 minutes of sun exposure daily should be all you need (although this varies depending on where you live, what type of skin you have and your age). Never lie out in the sun for extended periods of time or during the hottest part of the day, always avoid sunburn and build up a tolerance to the sun slowly. If you’re fair skinned, start introducing your skin to the sun in the cooler months in the morning or afternoon.
2. Uninterrupted exposure - You cannot generate vitamin D if there is a glass window between you and the sun. The UVB rays needed for vitamin D production are absorbed by glass and will not be passed through to your skin.
3. Don’t cover up with sunscreen - Even weak sunscreens will block the ability of your skin to absorb the UVB rays and manufacture vitamin D. However, once you have surpassed your 10-15 minutes of unprotected exposure, you should get out of the sun or cover up with something. If you do need sunscreen, find one that contains no chemicals. Visit the Environmental Working Group to find the safest products.
4. Protect your skin with food - Still worried that exposing your skin to sunlight is harmful? Load up on anti-oxidant rich foods and beneficial fats that will strengthen your skin cells and help to protect them from sun damage. These include vegetables and fruits such as blueberries, raspberries, goji berries and pomegranates.
5. Have your Vitamin D levels tested regularly - The best way to find out whether you are deficient or not is to take yourself along to have a blood test. If you are aiming for optimal health you will want your level to be in the 50-80 ng/ml range.
6. Take a supplement - During winter or if you live in an area that gets minimal sun exposure, you may need to source a vitamin D3 supplement. Be careful with this though because taking too large a dose can lead to vitamin D toxicity. This is why sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, as the body will only take and generate what it needs. If you think you need a supplement, check with your doctor or naturopath first and have your vitamin D levels checked regularly to ensure you are not getting more than you need.