Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the lack of sunlight over the drawn out Winter months has put our endurance to the test. That coupled with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe - we’re all in need of a lucky break.
Now that Spring has arrived, the days are at least beginning to blossom and brighten and our thoughts turn to the sun-rich, hot and summery days ahead. And it’s a magical alchemy of sunshine and vitamin D that IS essential for our health and longevity, now and in the long and winding road ahead.
Despite the name, vitamin D is actually a steroid hormone that’s obtained primarily through sun exposure (via UVB rays). With extensive coverage over the past few years it’s one of the biggest areas of research within the health sciences. Thousands of studies have attested to the health benefits of Vitamin D. Playing a critical role in disease prevention and optimising health, it’s actively involved in:
- healthy immune function and the modulation of innate and adaptive immune responses. It’s also plays a critical role in reducing our susceptibility to infection as well as defending the immune system against foreign organisms, like viruses (this coronavirus), bacteria, parasites etc.
- preventing autoimmune diseases
- preventing various types of cancer including skin cancer
- lowering heart disease and type 2 diabetes
- reducing chronic inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease and age-related macular degeneration.
- enhancing fertility health
- mood and brain health: low levels are linked to depression and anxiety
- seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- sleep quality
- healthy bone (and teeth) development and the prevention of osteoporosis and osteopenia
- healthy gene expression: of our 25,000 genes, vitamin D affects over 2000 of them + all the vitamin D receptors on every cell in the body.
We simply can’t get enough vitamin D through our diet. So the BEST way to optimise our levels is through good old-fashioned daily sun exposure: to the face, arms, chest and legs. The time of day is important too. And emerging research recommends exposure when the sun is at its highest point in the sky – around midday.
What do the experts say?
We are facing an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency and it’s a major global public health issue. Around one billion people worldwide are said to have an end scale deficiency and 50% of the population, sub optimal levels. Michael, F Holick, Ph.d., M.D. a foremost expert on vitamin D and the author of ‘The Vitamin D Solution‘ says, ‘the time of day, season of year, latitude, degree of skin pigmentation, acclimation, indoor lifestyle and the use of sunscreen all have influences’ on our ability to utilise and manufacture it. The likelihood of a vitamin D insufficiency also increases across the elderly, obese and those with malabsorption syndromes.
Another important consideration is the common use of sunscreen which inhibits the utilisation of vitamin D. Founder of the Vitamin D Council, Dr. John Cannell says that ‘the advice to avoid the sun can have equally if not greater adverse health effects’. Linking this issue to melanoma and other types of skin cancer. An interesting paradox to note that dermatologists for many years have recommended people avoid the sun and wear sunscreen all year round.
So, you might see how a year-long deficiency could manifest under the sun-shy Winter months and sunscreen-rich warmer months. And regardless of the season, our modern lifestyles see us working longer hours and simply spending more time indoors – further promoting sub optimal levels.
Experts say the pros far outweigh the cons and that Vitamin D acquired through UVB rays is essential for health and longevity. Of course, during the cooler months – that’s not possible and supplementing with high quality Vitamin D3 supplementation is advisable. But getting the dose right can be tricky and important to monitor.
How much sunshine do we need?
There is much confusion and controversy around this contentious issue as it’s no straight forward matter. As already noted, individual requirements depend on many factors. Skin type is an important one and can be determined through the Fitzpatrick scale – a basic guide to understanding sensitivity towards burning.
More recently it was thought that 10-30 minutes of ‘daily’ sunshine is enough. But with six different Fitzpatrick skin types, the optimal length of sun exposure varies for us all. With so much conflicting research and advice, it’s hard to know what’s what.
In a nutshell my conclusion is that somewhere between 10-20 minutes for the fairer maiden and around 30-40 minutes for the more exotic skin tone, would be a fair enough estimate, but again it’s unique for us all.
A reliable resource is GrassrootsHealth. Offering a wealth of evidence-based research on Vitamin D, it’s breaking new ground – moving research into practice. The UV index is one of the three key factors for managing sun exposure and a helpful tool to better understand how to manage vitamin D levels.
So there are a lot of variables to consider and it doesn’t stop there. Tune in for my next article where I’ll share with you the latest research around testing and managing your vitamin D levels. I’ll also help you to navigate your way through the controversial advice around supplementation and what dose is right for you.
London naturopath, nutritionist, medical herbalist and BodyTalk practitioner Merran Lusher, ND offers science-based intuitive holistic health consultations and healing for mind, body and soul. Merran consolidates other natural therapies into her treatments including energy work, homeopathy, reiki, dietary and lifestyle advice and much more. She runs a busy weekly remote clinic to clients around the world and also consults across two busy London practices in Chelsea and North London. You can read more about her here.