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We often hear about the risks of excessive sun exposure. There is plenty to be aware of, including more rapid aging and skin cancer. In fact, an estimated one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
While the risks of too much sun are very real, sometimes people might underestimate the health benefits of proper sun exposure. We can for example, get vitamin D from the sun, although you should keep your exposure at a moderate level.
The following are things everyone should know about this critical fat-soluble vitamin that people are often deficient in.
Vitamin D is also known as calciferol. The fat-soluble vitamin naturally occurs in some foods and is added to others. You can take it as a dietary supplement, and it’s also produced with UV rays from the sun hitting your skin, triggering vitamin D synthesis.
An estimated 41.6% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, although this number may actually be much higher. Many more than that have inadequate levels. In African American adults, the level of deficiency goes up to more than 82%, and it’s 69.2% in Hispanic adults.
Vitamin D helps boost calcium absorption into the teeth and bones, strengthening them. This helps prevent bone loss and developing disorders like osteoporosis.
Vitamin D regulates the level of calcium in your bloodstream, which helps your heart function properly. It’s critical for proper immune functioning, and it helps keep your kidneys healthy by correcting mineral imbalances.
Adequate levels of the vitamin help encourage optimal brain-body communication, and it reduces inflammation.
The Risks of Vitamin D Deficiency
There are a number of complications that can occur as a result of having inadequate levels of vitamin D. For example, if your levels are pervasively low, you may be at risk of bone loss, developing cancer, depression, and type 2 diabetes. Other complications include developing autoimmune diseases and having cardiovascular problems.
Symptoms that you might be deficient include:
- Frequently having infections or getting sick
- Feeling tired and fatigued
- Bone and back pain
- Muscle pain
- Slow wound healing
- Hair loss
- Weight gain
What Are the Causes of Deficiency?
There’s not one single cause for vitamin D deficiency, but some of the risk factors include:
- Being an older adult—when compared to younger people, older people tend to have less of the substance in their skin that UVB light converts to the precursor for vitamin D. There’s also some evidence that older people are less efficient at producing the vitamin than younger people.
- Having darker skin—melanin is a substance in the skin that makes it dark. Melanin competes with UVB to start vitamin D production. Darker-skinned people need more UVB exposure than light-skinned people to produce the same amount of vitamin D.
- Being overweight or obese—body fat absorbs vitamin D, and it can affect the bioavailability.
- Not having a lot of dairy or fish
- Living far from the equator—the farther you are from the equator, the less UVB light is reaching the surface of the earth during the winter. If you live in the Northeast United States, for example, there may be very little UVB light from November through February. There are also shorter days, and you’re more likely to be wearing clothes that cover your arms and legs.
- Sunscreen—it can be important to wear sunscreen if you’re going to be in the sun for long periods, but it may affect your vitamin D levels as well.
- Staying indoors
- Having kidney disease or liver disease
- A health condition affecting nutrient absorption like Crohn’s or celiac
- Having gastric bypass surgery
- Medications that interfere with vitamin D metabolism like steroids and statins
How to Get More Vitamin D
If you are vitamin D deficient or you think you could be, you should speak to your doctor. Your doctor is likely to recommend a few options if they do a blood test and determine you do have a deficiency or your levels need to be improved.
Supplementing is one option. You can find over the counter vitamin D supplements but talk to your doctor about the right dosage. For example, you might need a high dose or a prescription dose of up to 50,000 IU.
There are vitamin D-rich foods you can add to your diet, such as egg yolks, fatty fish, beef liver, and yogurt. Some cereals, milk, and juices have added vitamin D.
If you’re trying to get more sun, aim to have 10 to 30 minutes of exposure two to three times a week.
If you have darker skin, you may need more time than this.