For years, we’ve heard about the damaging effects of sunlight: skin damage, wrinkles, and skin cancer—all of which should be carefully considered. However, in our best efforts to avoid the negative consequences of sun exposure, most of us no longer balance getting the right amount of sunlight. Altered exposure to the sun—whether intentional or due to factors such as lifestyle or environment—prevents our skin from absorbing sunlight and synthesizing vitamin D in our skin, bloodstream, liver, and kidneys, which is the way nature intended for us to make vitamin D, the natural way with sunlight.
Recent studies show a strong link between insufficient levels of vitamin D and higher rates of certain cancers, such as colon and breast cancer. Vitamin D deficiency has also been identified as a risk factor in developing cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s disease) and neurological manifestations. Studies have correlated higher rates of multiple sclerosis (MS) in regions that are farther from the equator and receive less sunlight, with statistics showing latitude is a strong risk factor for MS. At 50–65 degrees latitude, either north or south, the prevalence rate of MS is approximately 60–100 people out of 100,000; however, the disease is rare at the equator. Other health conditions are also linked to a lack of sunlight, including chronic fatigue, autoimmune diseases, and insomnia from disrupted circadian rhythms, among many others. Sleep disturbances, depression, and mood shifts are common with seasonal affective disorder, which typically occurs in the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight.
Yet we can decrease our risk for many serious health conditions when we get the proper amount of sunlight. With optimal vitamin D levels in our blood, our bodies are better equipped to fight inflammation, our bones and muscles stay strong, and our heart, lungs, and brain can function properly. Quite simply, vitamin D is a powerhouse in disease prevention.
It’s estimated that over one billion people have inadequate levels of vitamin D, which makes it all the more important to remember that humans are designed to get sun. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent their days outside working and hunting, and the animals and plants that sustained them also needed the sun for energy and life. Though we may not spend our lives outdoors in modern times, we still need exposure to the sun to thrive, to help regulate our sleep cycles, and for our physical and emotional health.
WFP’s Take-Home Advice
We recognize that sunlight has to be balanced for each person, depending on age and individual skin type. Here is our WFP approach to vitamin D, sunlight, and sunscreen:
- Try to get sunlight at least three to five times a week on as much body area as possible and without any type of sunscreen on your skin, unless you have a personal or family history of skin cancer, which prohibits personal sunlight exposure. Please talk to a healthcare provider if this applies to you. Thirty to fifty percent of your body should be exposed to direct sunlight. The face doesn’t produce much vitamin D, though, so be sure to protect this delicate skin. In the spring and summer months, aim for 15–20 minutes. In fall and winter, when UVB-rays are less intense due to the earth’s tilt away from the sun, double your exposure time. If you haven’t been in the sun for a while, gradually expose yourself over time. Skin color does affect how well sunlight is absorbed and synthesized: People with fair skin produce vitamin D faster than those with darker skin. Individuals with dark skin need to double their exposure time in the sun to make the same amount of vitamin D as fair-skinned individuals.
- UVB-rays from the sun facilitate vitamin D production, so the optimal time to be in the sun for vitamin D production is between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., when maximal UVB-rays are available. During the week, make it a point to spend some of your lunch hour relaxing outside, with the sun’s rays hitting as much of your arms or legs as possible.
- Direct sunlight is the best way to make vitamin D; however, many factors often prohibit sun exposure: fitting the sun into a busy schedule, having sensitive skin, living in an area where there is not a lot of sunlight, or as stated above getting sunlight is too risky because of a personal or family history of skin cancer. With so many factors, it’s easy to understand why vitamin D deficiency is a global epidemic. For this reason, we recommend that you take an over-the-counter daily vitamin D3 supplement to protect yourself. Avoid prescription vitamin D2, as this is not the best form of vitamin D to take. Vitamin D3 (the over-the-counter form) is the type of vitamin D produced by the body from exposure to sunlight; vitamin D2 (the prescription form) is not. Current studies also show that vitamin D3 is more potent and effective than vitamin D2 at raising vitamin D levels in the blood. For adults, the vitamin D3 dosage is 2,000–10,000 IU (depending on individual need). For children below the age of five, the recommended vitamin D dosage is 20–35 units per pound, per day; the guideline for children ages 5–10 is 700–2,000 units per day. Before starting this supplement, see your medical provider to determine starting levels and to know what dosage is right for you. It’s also especially important to supplement with a daily vitamin D3 in the winter months. For a high-quality formula, see our Wiseman Health Vitamin D3 with K2.
- Have your vitamin D3 levels checked yearly. The optimal range is 50–90 ng/ml. If supplementing, have your levels checked 3–6 months after you begin taking the supplement to ensure you’re in the optimal range.
- When possible, use physical sunblocks such as a long-sleeve shirt, a hat, handkerchief around the neck, or shade when exposed to the sun for long periods of time.
- Use sunscreen when you are going to burn and can’t protect yourself with physical sunblocks, for example, if you are out on a lake or the beach for a prolonged period of time or at high altitudes where sunlight is stronger.
- Most chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that are toxic to the body. Use the safest sunscreens and avoid the more common ones with harmful toxic chemicals such as PABA and parabens. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays and dispersing them as heat. Those that are labeled “broad spectrum” protect against UVB-rays and some UVA. UVA-rays tan the skin and cause premature skin aging and wrinkles; UVB-rays cause sunburn but are also the ones responsible for facilitating vitamin D production. Since sunscreens reduce the amount of UVB-rays on the skin, this can affect vitamin D production.
- Use mineral-based sunscreens, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, to deflect both UVA- and UVB-rays, for example, Badger’s zinc oxide (non-nano type) or Juice Beauty SPF Sport Sunscreen. A great natural “suncare” product is Jaydancin’s Coco Loco, which provides skin nourishment with minimal sun protection when exposure is gradual over time. There are also natural-based moisturizers and make-up products that contain SPF and block UVB-rays, such as UNSUN Mineral Tinted Face Sunscreen SPF 30.
- Avoid tanning sprays and tanning beds used for the sole purpose of bronzing or tanning your skin.
- Most importantly: Avoid Burning! If you have sensitive or fair skin and burn easily, focus on getting just a little sun exposure. Even 2–3 minutes every day or every other day is better than not getting any sun at all.
- When considering your overall approach to total wellness and disease prevention, view sunlight and vitamin D supplementation as important as eating clean whole foods, drinking pure water, getting proper sleep, and exercising. It’s also important to have vitamin D levels checked, especially for individuals who are at a greater risk of vitamin D deficiency. This includes individuals who: live in areas that don’t get much sunlight in winter and/or experience mood changes due to seasonal changes; don’t spend much time outdoors; carry more weight or muscle mass; have darker skin and require more sun exposure to make vitamin D; are older than 50 years of age and producing less vitamin D when exposed to the sun; are pregnant; or have a gastrointestinal disorder that inhibits absorbing dietary fat. Signs of vitamin D deficiency may present as fatigue, body aches, or excessive head sweating and should be checked by your medical provider.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 2, 2017 and has since been updated.
Sources and References:
Vitamin D and Health. hsph.harvard.edu. Retrieved February 20, 2017 from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-d/
Lips, P. (J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2010, July) Worldwide status of vitamin D nutrition. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved February 20, 2017 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20197091
Littlejohns, T.J., et al. Vitamin D and Dementia. jpreventionalzheimer.com. Retrieved March 22, 2017 from http://www.jpreventionalzheimer.com/1232-vitamin-d-and-dementia.html
Higher Levels of Vitamin D Correspond to Lower Cancer Risk. (2016, April 06). sciencedaily.com. Retrieved March 22, 2017 from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160406165254.htm
Low Vitamin D Levels. breastcancer.org. Retrieved March 22, 2017 from http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/low_vit_d.
Vitamin D Council. Multiple Sclerosis. vitamindcouncil.org. Retrieved March 22, 2017 from https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/health-conditions/multiple-sclerosis/.
My Virtual Medical Centre. Multiple Sclerosis (MS). myvmc.com. Retrieved March 28, 2017 from https://www.myvmc.com/diseases/multiple-sclerosis-ms/.
Vitamin D Council. Am I Deficient in vitamin D? vitamindcouncil.org. Retrieved February 20, 2017 from https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/about-vitamin-d/am-i-deficient-in-vitamin-d/