Vitamin D: The Sunshine Nutrient
Vitamin D is necessary for optimal health, and most of us are deficient in it.
Why should you care?
Because vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of many diseases including:
osteoporosis and fractures (1)
autoimmune disease (2, 3)
cardiovascular disease (5)
thyroid issues, weight gain and difficulty losing weight
Who’s at risk?
One study found that up to 57% of people have insufficient vitamin D (6). Insufficiency is defined as levels between 15 and 29 ng/ml. Another study found 9% of US children and adolescents are deficient (less that 15ng/ml) and 61% were insufficient (7). Clinically I’ve found these rates to be much higher. Prior to moving to California last year, I had been practicing in New York and before that, Oregon. I had found vitamin D deficiency was incredibly common in both of these locations but had assumed Californians wouldn’t be as susceptible. Sure enough, I was wrong. It’s rare for me to see a healthy level in the absence of supplementation.
What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D is really considered a hormone rather than a vitamin. The difference being, vitamins are substances that are taken in through food. Hormones are substances that are created in the body. The majority of vitamin D is made internally, and the production is stimulated by sunshine. A very small amount of vitamin D can be taken in through food, but diet alone is not enough. There is a small amount of vitamin D in fish and fortified milk, but even in the case of milk, it’s added rather than naturally present.
Why is vitamin D deficiency so common?
Historically speaking humans worked outside in the sunshine most of the day and their body produced and stored enough vitamin D to keep them healthy during the winter months when they were wearing long sleeves, and sun exposure is less. This much different than the modern human. Most of us spend our day traveling in cars, working in buildings and even exercising indoors. Being so far removed from our natural outdoor lifestyle, so many of us are vitamin D deficient.
How to monitor?
It’s really important to monitor vitamin D levels because just as too little vitamin D is associated with many diseases, too much vitamin D can also be a problem.
If you’re vitamin D deficient or insufficient and are supplementing have your levels tested every 3 months. Your need will change based on the seasons.
If you’ve never been tested, ask your doctor!
How to get more vitamin D:
Sun exposure is the best way to achieve adequate vitamin D, however, many require supplementation during the winter months or if they don’t get adequate sun during the sunny months. Here are some tips to get in some more sunshine:
Work out outside in short sleeves. Go for a run, take a mat outside to do your strength training or yoga, it’s so nice. Now that the weather has been nice, I’m obsessed with doing yoga on my deck.
Eat a meal outdoors: For optimal Vitamin D absorption this would be lunch, but breakfast and dinner would also be beneficial.
Find and outdoor hobby like tennis, hiking, gardening, surfing, get a dog to walk, etc. Spend the first 10-15 minutes without any sunscreen then apply it to prevent getting burnt.
What about skin cancer?
The benefits of sunshine exceed vitamin D production. It causes endorphins to release which lowers stress and promotes a sense of calm and happiness. It also causes the release of several substances that lower blood pressure. A recent 20-year study following nearly 30,000 women found that this who avoided sun exposure, although less likely to die from skin cancer, were more likely to die from all causes (8). Obviously, do your best to avoid getting burnt and eat a nutritious diet full of colorful vegetables and fruits, so you have adequate antioxidants to protect your skin from damage.
Enjoy the sunshine!