27 Mar The Power of the Sun
In the pursuit of health, attention is mainly focused on diet, exercise and supplementing with nutrients we are found deficient in. These measures are important but most of us, including health care professionals, forget, neglect or pay less attention to what is out there, for free – sunshine.
While some of us can argue they live in a part of the world with little sunshine, most of us take it for granted, avoid it or have willingly or inadvertently substituted it for artificial light indoors.
Vitamin D Production
The most obvious significance of sunlight to health is the production of vitamin D. Most of us are aware of this but the scare over skin cancer has led to hiding in the shade or excessive slapping on of sunscreen. While I’m not advocating being burned by sitting for hours under the hot sun, use of sunscreen reduces the body’s production of vitamin D by 90-99 percent.
You are also at risk of low vitamin D production if you spend most of the daylight hours inside artificially lit workplaces.
What’s the big deal about having adequate Vitamin D?
- Bone health. It is needed for calcium absorption into bones and interacts with other nutrients that play a role in bone health like vitamin K, magnesium and phosphorus.
- Blood sugar regulation through insulin secretion and prevention of diabetes.
- Protection against various types of cancers.
- Blood pressure regulation.
- Properly regulated immune function. Vitamin D enhances our immune system to fight pathogens like viruses and bacteria. It regulates the extent of inflammation and prevents autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and others.
- Hormones regulation. Low levels of vitamin D affect sex hormones production, such as testosterone and oestrogen.
- Brain function. Vitamin D supports our learning ability, memory and concentration. Low levels are implicated in mental health issues from anxiety, depression to schizophrenia.
- Gene activity. Vitamin D influences thousands of human genes.
Vitamin D Supplementation
I recommend everyone to get their vitamin D level tested. If your level is low (less than 35 ng/mL), supplementation in the appropriate form and combined with synergistic nutrients like magnesium and vitamin K, can be beneficial.
However vitamin D through oral supplements cannot truly replace your body’s natural production by exposure to sunlight.
The science behind this is very complicated. To give you an idea in an over simplified way, vitamin D is made from cholesterol in the skin when we are exposed to UVB rays from the sun. There is a photo-electrical charge that changes cholesterol to vitamin D in the form of D3. Further changes happen mainly in the kidney to turn this into the active form 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D.
The name Vitamin D is actually a misnomer as it is actually a group of steroid hormones. The difference in taking vitamin D in supplement form is we do not get the “charge” or “energy” from the sunlight. This “charge” or “energy” from the vitamin D made from sunlight has a potent impact on the workings of our cells and on the regeneration of our tissues.
Beyond vitamin D
The benefits of sunlight go beyond vitamin D. We make other important substances when our skin is exposed to the sun’s UVB rays, e.g. natural opiates that increase pain tolerance, substances that protect against oxidative stress and inflammation of our blood vessels, hormones that regulate appetite, libido and control of cortisol release by our adrenal glands.
Tips on getting sunlight exposure
- Lie outdoors for 10 minutes to an hour whenever possible with as much of your body exposed as possible, without sunscreen. This could be on your balcony, garden, sundeck of a swimming pool or by the beach.
- To get the best sunlight exposure, your shadow should be shorter than you. The timing depends on where you live.
- Those with lighter skin need less time to make vitamin D, just enough to turn your skin pink. So please do not wait till you burn. Those with darker skin may need 30 minutes or more.
- Go for a walk outdoors at lunch time, with your sleeves rolled up.
- Contrary to popular belief, it is preferable to not wear sunglasses. If you are able to get out in the morning sun, turn your eyes to the gentle sunlight. But of course not if the sunlight has become too harsh and it burns your eyes.
- At work or home, if possible opt for large windows or skylights allowing natural light in.
- Keep curtains or blinds open during the day.
- Rearrange furniture so as to sit near a window.
- Trim tree branches that block sunlight coming in.
If you live in a country with the seasons, making an effort to get regular sunlight exposure in spring and summer may give you enough stores of vitamin D in your body during winter months. Supplementation of Vitamin D is helpful during this period as well.
Some help from food
It is generally difficult to get adequate amounts of vitamin D from food.
Animal sources of vitamin D3, especially if they have cholesterol is closest to what sunlight naturally produces in humans. These include seafood like halibut, sardines, salmon, eel, tuna and mackerel. Eggs have some vitamin D. Mushrooms, which contain plant sterols is one of the better plant sources of vitamin D, especially if they are exposed to UV light.