Are there moderate, healthy levels of unprotected exposure to the sun that could be helpful in boosting the body’s vitamin D levels?
We all know vitamin D as the sunshine vitamin, as this important, fat-soluble vitamin is produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight. It has become increasingly common, especially in this country, for people to present with vitamin D deficiency, with less time being spent outside in general, and guidelines telling us that we should be protecting ourselves with SPF all the time. But is this amount of constant protection really necessary, or could it be contributing to the wide spread low levels of vitamin D that the country is experiencing, and are there actually moderate, healthy levels of unprotected exposure to the sun that could be helpful in boosting the body’s vitamin D levels?
A recent clinical review has found that nearly one billion people worldwide may be deficient in or may have inadequate levels of vitamin D due to chronic disease and insufficient sun exposure related to sunscreen use. Admittedly, during the darker months, it is a lot harder to keep levels topped up from the sun, but as spring and summer come around, and the sun begins to shine, spending some time outdoors could really make a huge difference.
We all associate vitamin D with bone health, and even though this is one extremely important role, it also plays a big part in immune system health, brain health, cell growth modulation, muscle function, and reduction of inflammation. Signs that someone may be deficient in vitamin D include, tiredness and fatigue, increased infections, mood disorders, brittle bones, aches and pains, and skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, with optimised vitamin D levels having also been shown to offer protective effects against autoimmune disease, infections, mental health conditions, and even cancer.
Vitamin D is available in some food sources, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, eggs, and mushrooms, but is extremely difficult to reach adequate levels just from eating these foods, especially if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, and recent research has shown that chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, and conditions related to malabsorption, for example, kidney disease, and Crohn’s and coeliac disease, may significantly hinder the ability of the body to metabolise vitamin D from such food sources.
Spending time outside in the sun to allow the body to produce vitamin D doesn’t mean sunbathing unprotected for hours at a time, as protection against the dangers of skin cancer is still paramount, but rather safe, short amounts of sun exposure, with the appropriate amount of time depending on geographic location and skin pigmentation (lighter skin pigments synthesise more vitamin D then darker skin pigments). Maintaining healthy levels can be as easy as spending 5-30 minutes out in the sun two times each week – just a light walk outside with arms and legs exposed, or some of your lunch break sitting in the park a couple of times a week, will usually be enough.
So even though food sources and supplementation of vitamin D do provide great benefits, spending time outdoors in nature is now more important than ever, and one of the simplest, most enjoyable ways we can top up our levels of the sunshine vitamin.
Pfotenhauer, K. M, and Shudbrook, J.H. (2017), Vitamin D Deficiency, Its Role in Health and Disease, and Current Supplementation Recommendations. jaoa, 117, 301-305. doi:10.7556/jaoa.2017.055.
Holick, M.F. (2016), Can you have your cake and eat it too? The sunlight D-lema. Br J Dermatol, 175: 1129–1131. doi:10.1111/bjd.15127.