Holistic Health Counseling | Erin Livers, Nutrition Therapist

Long before man emerged on the planet, the Sun has been providing warmth and nourishment to the Earth. Plants use the sun’s energy for photosynthesis, transforming the rays of sunshine into nourishment in the form of carbohydrates. For us, the Sun is nature’s ultimate expression of fire, sparking the emotions of love and joy within us. According to Chinese five-element theory, fire supports us to manifest our loving, joyful nature. When we are in touch with this, we naturally spread joy, laughter, warmth, passion, and playful energy to those around us.

But it wasn’t until medical science delved into the human body that we learned how an enzyme in our skin converts the sun’s energy in our bodies into life-giving nourishment in the form of vitamin D. Thus it earned its nickname, the “sunshine vitamin.” One hundred years ago it was added to our diet to prevent rickets, which delays and deforms bone development. Beyond that, it hasn’t attracted much attention until recently. Numerous studies have revealed it has wide-ranging effects in the body and may play a role in preventing depression and mood disorders like seasonal affective disorder; breast, prostate, colon and other cancers; osteoporosis; autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis; heart disease; hypertension; diabetes; and even gum disease.

We have long known that vitamin D regulates our bone’s growth, hardening, and repair by controlling the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from our digestive system. It also promotes strong teeth and the normal development of infants and children. Now it turns out, vitamin D isn’t a vitamin at all, but a steroid hormone. More recently, researchers have found receptors for this hormone in a wide variety of cells, and that its biologic effects extend far beyond our metabolism of bone strengthening minerals.

The studies also show that vitamin D deficiencies are more common than previously thought due to the amount of time we spend indoors, under wraps and coated in sunscreen. Living in northern latitudes also plays a role in deficiencies. When we have adequate exposure to sunlight, we don’t require additional supplementation, but that may prove more difficult than previously thought. While vitamin D is also found in egg yolks, fish oil (herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, and tuna), organ meats, and a number of plants, we can’t get enough from our diet to prevent a deficiency. So exposure to sunlight and consumption of foods fortified with vitamin D, like milk, are necessary additions to dietary consumption.

Sunlight Is the Ideal Source of vitamin D

Ideally, the best place to get vitamin D is from your skin being exposed to the ultraviolet-B rays in normal sunlight. Ultraviolet (UV) light is divided into 3 bands, or wavelength ranges, which are referred to as UV-A, UV-B and UV-C. UV-B is sometimes called the “burning ray.” While it’s the primary cause of sunburn due to overexposure to sunlight, UV-B sunlight is also what produces vitamin D on our skin.

Researchers now recommend an exposure of 10 to 15 minutes for two-to-three times a week, making sure that mid-day sunlight hits a fairly large surface area on our arms, legs and/or back. Then if you plan to remain in the sun, apply a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 and/or clothing to cover up. Adequate vitamin D is only one reason to create a sunbathing ritual for yourself. In addition, you’ll also expose yourself to fresh air, a mental break from you workday and possibly even some exercise if you combine your ritual with a walk, bike ride or other sport. This exposure can provide adequate vitamin D during those months when the appropriate sunlight is available, but not during winter or in northern latitudes. In the U.S., this means that many of us are only absorbing adequate vitamin D for about five months of the year.

Other things that can get between your skin and the ultraviolet-B rays are window glass, the time of day, cloud cover, smog and the use of sunscreen. Unlike the typical American strategy, more is better, synthesizing vitamin D through natural sunlight is maximized after 20 minutes of UVB exposure, and extended sun exposure only increases the risk of skin damage and possible skin cancer. As long as you avoid being sunburned, the above recommendation has not been found to increase your risk of skin cancer. Based upon these recent findings, sun exposure at mid-day on unexposed skin has been found to be one of the healthiest things you can do for your body.

Beginning sun exposure in the spring should be done very gradually to avoid a burn, and at all times of the year we should limit our exposure to prevent sunburn. Those of us who are fair-skinned and tend to burn more easily need less sun exposure to receive our dose of vitamin D. Lighter skin allows for greater penetration of UV-B, leading to higher levels of vitamin D. Five minutes of mid-day summer sun exposure, two-to-three times per week, is adequate for them. Those of us with darker skin need considerably more sun to generate enough of the vitamin. This is one reason breast and prostate cancers are higher in Africans living in temperate climates. They aren’t able to get enough sun to generate vitamin D. In fact, in the Northern U.S. cities, they may not be able to get adequate levels from sunlight in any season. Because it’s impossible to get vitamin D toxicity from too much sun exposure, receiving your vitamin D from the sun is the best option, if possible.Our elders have greater difficulty getting enough vitamin D from sun exposure since the enzyme in our skin decreases with aging and, as a result, their skin has a limited capacity for producing vitamin D.

Interestingly, if you don’t get sunburned yet maintain regular sun exposure (maintain healthy Vitamin D levels), research has begun to show that you may decrease your risk of the dangerous skin cancer, melanoma. This research, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that evidence of sun exposure in the skin was strongly associated with a reduced risk of dying from melanoma.

Another benefit to reconnecting with the energy of the sun is its ability to help us establish the rhythm of our day. Since we emerged on this planet, our internal rhythms have been set so we rise with sun and bring our day to a close as darkness envelops us. With the invention of the electric light bulb, the light of day has illuminated our night and today, some of us compromise our natural rhythm as we push to stay awake in front of the TV or computer into the wee hours of the night. If we work indoors in an office without windows we may not be aware of the sun’s energy at all during our day. For some, a lack of regular sunlight can disrupt their internal rhythms causing sleep problems, weight gain, mood disorders and many other symptoms. This sun “prescription” is especially important for those who spend much of their time indoors.

Supplemental vitamin D

If the latitude of your city is above 30 degrees north (Denver is 39 degrees north) or below 30 degrees south, you may not be getting enough vitamin D from late September to early May. (This includes most of the US and all of Europe.) At these latitudes we don’t have access to the proper amount of sun in the winter, so supplementation is necessary. In the summer months, when the sun is out there, many of us are working indoors during the week and don’t feel we have the time to go out and capture some sunlight on our skin.

Options for supplementing vitamin D, especially during the winter months, is exposure to full-spectrum artificial light and/or oral vitamin D supplements. Supplementing with 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day has been shown to lower your risk of colon cancer by 50% (Dr. Michael Holick).

If you suspect a deficiency you can have your 25(OH) vitamin D level measured. If your level is below 32 ng/ml you need enough sun, artificial light, oral vitamin D supplements, or some combination of the three, to increase and maintain your 25(OH) vitamin D levels to between 32 and 55 ng/ml to maintain health or to between 55 and 80 ng/ml for optimal health, if you have had cancer or have been diagnosed with an auto-immune condition (except for those with scleroderma who should maintain levels between 30-44ng/ml). The correct blood test is a 25-hydroxyvitamin D test. Recently, Dr. Michael Holick, a leading vitamin D researcher and other complementary practitioners have recommended that adults supplement with 2,000 IUs vitamin D daily to maintain health and that infants from birth be supplemented with 400 IUs per day. Babies should be getting their vitamin D from breast milk, but do so only if mom is supplementing with 4-6,000 IUs per day. My own experience has shown that most adults require more than 2,000 IUs/day in order to maintain optimal levels, so I recommend a blood test to measure and then a re-test to determine if your supplementation is adequate.

There are three types of vitamin D supplements: vitamin D sulfate, which is naturally generated in our skin, vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) with supplements coming from lanolin or fish oil, and vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), which comes from fungi and is found in fortified foods. There has been some controversy over whether D2 is less biologically active, and prescription vitamin D is the D2 form. Recent research has shown that both forms will raise vitamin D blood levels, but most supplements sold contain the D3 form. I recommend that we get our vitamin D first from the sun (as vitamin D sulfate), but if we must supplement to keep our D level at the optimal blood level, often necessary in the winter months, then D3 supplements work well and are the form I recommend for the doses below.

While there is no published evidence of vitamin D toxicity in adults from an intake of 10,000 IU per day, people with sarcoidosis, tuberculosis, or lymphoma become hypercalcemic in response to any increase in vitamin D and should not supplement. People who have found they are deficient through blood testing should consult with their practitioner, but may want to supplement between 5,000 and 10,000 IUs per day for a period of about 4 months or until a re-test shows they have corrected their deficiency.

Cod Liver Oil

Cod liver oil often contains vitamin D, but not usually in significant enough amounts to maintain an intake of 2,000 IU per day. It also contains varying amounts of vitamin A (vary by brand), which can be harmful to some. Pregnant women or women who may become pregnant may want to limit their intake of cod liver oil or choose another source of vitamin D to keep their daily vitamin A intake below 10,000 units per day total from all dietary and supplemental sources.

Full-Spectrum Artificial Light

Several artificial light sources that provide the proper wavelength for vitamin D production are commercially available. Some companies even provide data on the vitamin D production of their lamps. Exposure to artificial light during the winter months has also been found to prevent seasonal affective disorder, or the winter “blues” for some.

Consider creating a sunbath ritual for yourself, and as you feel the sun’s warmth flowing through your body, let it inspire you to spread warmth and love and joy to those around you.

As an avid sun worshipper, I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to keep myself healthy and in touch with my inner fire.