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The sunshine vitamin

Vitamin D plays an important role in keeping us healthy, one we can’t afford to ignore. 

The sun doesn’t just give Superman his powers, it gives each of us the strength to take on every day. Australia however faces a bit of a conundrum. We are a sun-kissed nation but as a report in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reveals 32% young adults and around 17% adolescents have a deficiency of vitamin D. And that’s something we should be worried about.  On the other hand, we do have a good reason for staying out of the sun, we do have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world after all. The trick is to get a healthy amount of sunshine while protecting ourselves from harmful rays. 

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that can be stored in the body for a long time. While it is present in a few foods like salmon, egg yolks, etc, the best source of this vital vitamin is the good ol’ sun. When the sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays hit the cholesterol in our skin cells vitamin D is synthesized. Unlike other vitamins, it functions like a hormone and several cells in the body have receptors for it. 

Adding a little pep to every step

One of its primary functions is to help the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus, which are essential for building and strengthening bones. It is essential in managing chronic muscle pain and reducing the risk of fractures. However, laboratory research has also shown that vitamin D can help reduce cancer cell growth, control infections and reduce inflammations. 

Emerging research also reveals that vitamin D has a vital role to play in helping control cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Furthermore, a study conducted at the University of Cambridge linked vitamin D to cognitive function while other studies found that sunlight spurs nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, which is responsible for forming, organizing and storing memories.

Be alert

On the other hand, low levels of vitamin D could have severe health consequences, including osteoporosis, muscle weakness, depression and perhaps even cancer. How can you tell if you have a vitamin D deficiency? Well, some of the symptoms are falling ill and getting infections frequently, impaired healing, muscle pain, chronic fatigue or tiredness, bone and back pain, poor moods, anxiety, weight gain and hair loss. Getting some more vitamin D will help, but it is advisable to consult your doctor before jumping into any form of treatment. 

Soak up some sun – the safe way

The commonly recommended daily dose of vitamin D is 600 IU. However, soaking up sun isn’t all that simple, especially as staying out too long could put you at risk of skin cancer. There are also other factors that affect your ability to synthesize vitamin D and how much time you need to spend in the sun. These include time of day, skin colour, how far you live from the equator, how much skin you expose to sunlight and whether you are wearing sunscreen or not. 

According to Australian researchers, the skin produces the most vitamin D when it’s exposed to the midday summer sun – but unfortunately that is also the time the skin is easily damaged. Hence, they recommend 10-15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m., during peak sun season from October to March. In winter however, you will need to spend more time soaking up some rays. 

However, people with darker skin, who have more melanin that naturally protects against damage from excess sunlight, will need to spend more time in the sun. Studies estimate anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours to produce optimal levels of vitamin D.

It’s also important to remember to expose as much to sunlight as possible and to go easy on the sunscreen. Sunscreen contains chemicals that either reflect, absorb or scatter sunlight, reducing skin exposure to harmful UV rays. However, because UVB rays are essential for making vitamin D, sunscreen could prevent the skin from producing it. So if you’re wearing some, you might need to spend more time in the sun. That being said, research studies are still unclear on whether frequently wearing sunscreen reduces your vitamin D levels in the long term.

Step into the light

Vitamin D deficiency is not something we can continue to ignore, it is what keeps us going and gives us the power to do the impossible. And just sitting by the windows doesn’t cut it, UVB rays cannot penetrate through windows, so the only answer is to step outdoors and soak up all the goodness the sun has to offer. 

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