Got Vitamin D? How and why to get it safely from the sun.
We’ve been told that the sun is evil; that it will burn our skin and give us cancer. Yes, those things can be true, however the sun is also beneficial and purposeful for all living things, including us. It naturally helps our body make vitamin D.
So what’s the big deal about Vitamin D? A lot! It is actually more of a hormone than a vitamin since it acts on nearly all of your cells. It’s involved in much more than just strong bones. Vitamin D:
- Controls inflammation from the immune system, essential for autoimmunity and allergies
- Helps alert the immune system of foreign invaders and fight them off, a huge player in defending against colds and the flu
- Regulates blood pressure
- Works with calcium to ease muscle aches and regulate heartbeat
- Maintains healthy blood sugar levels, important for prevention of diabetes, insulin resistance and obesity
- Improves mood
- And of course, it is a big part of the bone building nutrient team
Deficiencies in vitamin D are linked to cancer, depression, fibromyalgia, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, autoimmunity and increased respiratory illnesses from viruses such as the flu. (1, 2)
Unfortunately it’s a very common deficiency worldwide. Here in America, 70% of children were found to be vitamin D deficient. (3) Studies have shown that people with vitamin D deficiency are 11 times more likely to get a cold or flu and that supplementing with vitamin D can reduce colds and flu by 42%. (4)
During nutrition school I wrote my senior thesis on natural flu prevention and vitamin D was a big, big player. Low vitamin D levels in the winter time are an explanation for why the flu is a seasonal illness. There are interesting theories that the flu is a result of lack of sun and therefore lack of vitamin D to fight off invaders. Tropical areas get the flu during the rainy season. Check out the work of epidemiologist R. Edgar Hope-Simpson. (4) There are other factors leading to the flu, but vitamin D is a major one.
The best source of vitamin D for humans is the sun. It produces 80-100% of the required amount. Summer is the time to get it, just as nature intended. Vitamin D is created in your skin from UVB rays and converted into D3, the active, most-usable form. However those rays are blocked by the ozone layer during winter months in the northern hemisphere because the sun angle is too low. In Colorado our D producing time is from March through October. In places further north like New England, the time is April through September. (6, 5, 4) From an immunity stand point, your wise body is fueling up your immune system now to help prevent the flu this winter.
Here’s how to get your D from the sun safely:
1. Spend some time outside WITHOUT sunscreen a few times per week. The best time of day for vitamin D sunning is from 10 am – 3 pm, so a walk or a little sun-bath at lunch is a great idea.
2. Expose as much skin as possible, arms and legs uncovered is optimal.
3. When your skin turns just a little pink, you’ve gotten your vitamin D. This can take anywhere from 5 – 30 minutes depending on your skin tone (darker skin tones will take longer). Remember, pink, not red.
4. After you’re a little pink, then it’s time to cover up, put on sunscreen, or get inside. Be careful not to burn your skin, that’s never advised.
5. As always, eat lots of organic vegetables, fruits, dark chocolate and turmeric for ample antioxidants to balance out any free radicals from the sun’s rays.
Food sources of Vitamin D
Vitamin D3 can be found in a few foods such as fatty fish – mackerel, herring, salmon and cod liver oil and egg yolks. Vitamin D is also in plants since they’re grown in the sun but in the D2 form. Foods such as milk are fortified with D2 from yeast. D3 is the active form that performs all the jobs around your body, so you have to convert D2 to D3. D2 can helpful but the amount in these foods is so small compared to what you need. Sources from the sun last in the body for 2-3 weeks, whereas dietary sources only last for 1-2 weeks. It is actually difficult to get adequate amounts of vitamin D from food alone, hence all the deficiencies. (5)
Get tested for vitamin D and maybe supplement
There are two versions that you doctor can test for: Calcitriol (1,25 Di-OH Vitamin D) and Vitamin D, 25 Hydroxy. Getting both of these helps to determine how well you’re absorbing it. The range for optimal health is 50-80 ng/ml. Once you know your level you may need to supplement, especially in winter to pull out of a deficiency. Research (5, 4) suggests that children need a minimum of 1,000-1,200 IUs and adults 2,000 – 2,500 IUs and maybe more to pull out of deficiency. I recommend supplementing vitamin D with vitamin K and eating lots of healthy fats to help absorption. Certain minerals like magnesium and calcium are also important for maintaining balance. Work with a practitioner to make sure you’re getting the right amounts and combos.
What about toxicity?
Remember, your body is very wise. Vitamin D is stored in your liver on purpose. We need it for so many functions and we cannot get adequate amounts during the winter time. Humans have been exposed to the sun for thousands of years without sunscreen. Your body knows what do to with it. The sun exposure that turns the skin a little pink before burning produces the equivalent of 10,000 to 25,000 international units (IUs) of vitamin D. (1)
The government recommendation of 200 to 600 IUs of vitamin D a day is outdated. This is the amount needed to prevent rickets, a serious bone disease, not to provide optimal health. In countries where sun exposure provides the equivalent of 10,000 IUs a day autoimmune diseases are uncommon. (1) The first scientist to isolate the active form of vitamin D admits that the 200 – 600 IU levels are inadequate and he was on the board of the Institute of Medicine that set them in 1997. (5)
However, very large dose supplementation for long periods of time can cause toxicity. This is why I recommend testing once or twice a year and why quality supplements that go the extra mile to test the potency of their products are important.
So get out there, get some sun, and fill up your stores while the sun is shining and winter is still far away.
With sunny thoughts,
Disclaimer: Nutrition therapy is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, prescription, or cure for any disease, or as a substitute for medical care. Jen Marshall and Stacy St Germain are not licensed medical providers. Nutrition plans are not intended as a substitution for traditional medical care, nor should be interpreted as medical advice, but instead is an adjunctive and supportive therapy.