Most of us love the sensation of warm sunshine and a gentle breeze on our skin. It’s synonymous with carefree summer holidays, happy memories and days spent unwinding by the beach or in the park.
What you may not realise, is that there is significant scientific evidence that this “feel good” factor is not only enjoyable, but essential in supporting a healthy body and mind.
Vitamin D … an overview
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which is stored in the liver and fatty tissues of the human body.
Vitamin D differs from other vitamins, as it is primarily created by our body when we are exposed to the sunshine’s ultraviolet B rays, rather than consumed via food sources. In fact, 80 to 100 per cent of the vitamin D we need comes from the sun!
Our body uses cholesterol to absorb this sunlight and convert it into the a usable vitamin “D3”, which is why it is widely recogonised as the “sunshine vitamin”.
Vitamin D is actually more like a hormone than a vitamin, regulating hundreds of different pathways in our body and - alongside thyroid hormones – it is one of only two hormones that is required by every cell in our body.
Many studies highlight the distinct links between Vitamin D deficiency and illnesses including (but not limited to) cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis.
Vitamin D deficiency
Studies consistently show that some 60 per cent of Australians and as many as 90 per cent of Americans are vitamin D deficient.
The vast majority of deficiencies are undiagnosed and there are a number of factors contributing to these exceptionally high rates.
Firstly, many of us simply are not exposed to enough sunlight. Increasingly, we spend our time working in office environments, exercising in gyms, surfing the internet, playing video games … you get the picture. Our increased inclination to “slip, slop, slap” in the fight against skin cancer is another contributor … sunscreens can block an up to 97 percent of our body’s vitamin D production.
Secondly, our skin produces less vitamin D as we age. So much so, that an average 70-year-old will generally create just a quarter of the vitamin D produced by a 20-year-old.
Finally, as obesity rates rise, so too do rates of vitamin D deficiency. As increased body fat has the ability to absorb Vitamin D, it can prevent it from being used within our bodies.
Interestingly, the amount of melanin we have (and therefore the colour of our skin) directly affects the amount of Vitamin D that we can produce, with fairer skins able to produce greater quantities in shorter timeframes.
The great news is that, armed with this knowledge, we can significantly enhance our health and wellbeing through increased rates of Vitamin D consumption / production.
Read on for some of the benefits that can be enjoyed when we increase our levels of the sunshine vitamin.
- Improved metabolism and bone strength. Vitamin D is perhaps most widely recognised for its influence on our metabolism and calcium regulation. Vitamin D balances calcium levels in our bodies and adequate levels of the sunshine vitamin are essential in supporting effective absorption calcium. Without adequate levels of Vitamin D, the intestine absorbs just 10 to 15 per cent of dietary calcium, thus making it a powerful ally in aiding against osteoporosis and other degenerative bone diseases. Studies have also demonstrated the ability of Vitamin D to support a balanced metabolism; with one 12 week supplementation study delivering a seven per cent reduction in body fat. Similarly, low levels have been linked to metabolic syndrome, which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Other studies have demonstrated improvements in muscle strength and physical performance.
- Illness / disease prevention. Through its ability to promote cellular growth and improve differentiation, Vitamin D has firmly established itself as a potent inhibitor of cancers; particularly colon, prostate, breast, pancreatic and ovarian cancers. Amazingly, this vitamin also seems to be able to kill and prevent growth of cancer cells by up to 50 per cent! Vitamin D plays an integral role in balancing our immune system and is a fabulous preventative for autoimmune conditions including Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, inflammatory bowel disorders and autoimmune thyroid problems. If ever you have felt your energy and moods slump in the depths of winter … you may have experienced a vitamin D deficiency. Lack of exposure to sunshine has been linked with significantly greater instances of depression (14%), while Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is linked with a lack of daylight and results in people feeling moody and lethargic.
- Organ support. Vitamin D delivers an effective boost for the brain and the heart … increased levels of Vitamin D result in improved memory and decreased rates of brain conditions like Alzheimer's. Higher rates of Vitamin D are also linked with lessened occurrences of heart attacks and strokes.
- Quality sleep. A good night’s sleep is vital if we want to look and feel our best, and healthy vitamin D levels of D are associated with increased sleep quality.
So, how can we healthily increase our levels?
As we now know, between 80 and 100 per cent of the Vitamin D we need comes via exposure to sunlight, which means the simplest, cheapest and most enjoyable way to improve your intake is to get outdoors!
Depending on where in the world we are, the season and our skin colour, between 10 and 45 minutes per day will significantly boost our levels. Fairer skin tones may only need 10 – 15 minutes per day (without sunscreen) while darker complexions may need between 40 and 60 minutes to receive the same benefit. For those of us who absolutely cannot go without sunscreen (even for a little while) try applying it to the face and hands, but not the remainder of the body during this short window of time. This will leave enough unexposed skin to properly create the Vitamin D needed. A simple walk to the mailbox, or a lunch consumed outdoors can make all the difference! When on holidays, be sure to take the opportunity to grab a book and secure a sunny location for a relaxing daytime read.
Another option is to visit the doctor for vitamin D testing and then address any deficiencies with supplements. Be sure to understand and work to “optimum levels” (40 to 65 ng/ml) rather than what many doctors will suggest as the “recommended levels”.
It’s also important to ensure we select the right supplement … While many vitamins and prescriptions contain Vitamin D2, this is ineffective as it is not biologically active. The only active and effective form of Vitamin D is vitamin D3.
It’s a great idea to check levels again in three months and always remember that it can take some 6 to 10 months to sufficiently top up the tank.
Finally, actively seeking and enjoying more vitamin D food sources (there are only a few) can contribute to optimum levels. Look to consume more fish liver oils, (such as cod liver oil), cooked wild salmon, cooked mackerel, sardines and eggs.
It’s worth noting though, that getting to optimum levels through food consumption alone is unlikely, so supplements or increased sun exposure will still be necessary.