I just came in from deliberately spending time outdoors in the summer midday sun, wearing skimpy clothes with no sunscreen. And I have pale, freckled skin and a family history of skin cancer. I know that some of you are saying, “Are you kidding? This can’t be healthy!”
And yet, my careful review of health research tells me that it is. When sun shines on our skin, our bodies make vitamin D, which thousands of research articles report is good for us in many ways: preventing and treating osteoporosis, preventing infectious diseases such as flu, reducing inflammation, and reducing risks for most chronic health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, joint pain, various autoimmune illnesses, and many forms of cancer, including melanoma, the dangerous form of skin cancer.
While too much sunshine on skin can indeed cause wrinkling, spotting, and basal cell skin cancer (the less dangerous form), we don’t have to be afraid of the sun. The trick is to be mindful of how much we are getting and how much we as individuals can tolerate on our skin. For maximum vitamin D with minimal risk, we want to expose our skin several times a week for not more than half the time that would cause slight pinkness. For me, at the height of summer, that is about 20 minutes. For people with much darker skin, that might be several hours. After that, cover up or put on good sunscreen.
And be especially careful of skin that is most susceptible to sun damage: eyes, face, ears, bald head, and any other parts that already have sun damage. I always wear a big hat and sunglasses when I am out in the summer sun.
One good thing about sunshine is that our bodies will mostly stop making D when our stores of it are high. (New research says that people who get many hours of direct sunshine, such as lifeguards near the equator, can make too much D, but that’s unlikely to happen with normal exposures.) Also, we need sunshine for other reasons, too, like improving mood and helping to set our sleep-wake cycles.
What about supplements of vitamin D?
But, if I haven’t convinced you about the need for sunshine, or if you have good reasons to avoid getting sunshine on your skin, you can get the D you need from supplements (although very little from food). Depending on how far from the equator we live, most of us need supplements in the winter months. But it is difficult to know how much vitamin D to take to get enough for the good health effects without getting too much. It is not true that more vitamin D is always better.
If you need a supplement to get enough, a good maintenance dose might be 1000-2000 IU/day, but you might need much more for a few weeks to fill up your body stores with enough vitamin D for optimal health.
I strongly recommend getting your blood tested for vitamin D, to make sure you have enough to reap all the potential health benefits but not too much to cause toxicity or imbalances with other nutrients. I’ll write more soon about vitamin D testing, potential toxicities, and supplementation at my primary nutrition and health blog, www.PortTownsendNutrition.com.
Stock up on sunshine now
In the Pacific Northwest, where I live, it is only in the summer months that we can make D from sunshine. The problem is not the grey skies, but the distance from the equator, so that in the “dark” eight or ten months of the year, the sun is at an angle too low to allow us to make vitamin D. During the summer, our bodies can make and store enough to last for several months of low sun exposure, and this is why I recommend that, if you live in the northern half of this country, you stock up now, getting a few minutes of sunshine on your skin each day that the sun is shining.
Be safe in the sun, but enjoy these last weeks of summer sunshine!
Elizabeth Walker, Ph.D., Certified Nutritionist