Too Much Sun or Not Enough? The Vitamin D Dilemma

The sun is a double-edged sword. We hear about the dangers of overexposure: premature aging, decreased immunity, and skin cancer. Yet, not getting enough sun leads to vitamin D deficiency, which affects 42% of Americans (and may also increase the risk of cancer!).  

So…should we get less sun or more sun?

The answer is not so cut-and-dry.

You don’t want to be lacking in vitamin D

Why is vitamin D deficiency such a problem?

Vitamin D (actually a hormone, not a vitamin) is used throughout the body, including the muscular system, nervous system, and immune system.

We all know we need calcium for strong bones, but without vitamin D, your body can’t absorb the calcium in the first place. Low calcium or vitamin D levels lead to health problems such as muscle aches, cramps, and spasms; bone pain; tooth decay; fatigue and brain fog; osteopenia and osteoporosis; osteomalacia and rickets.

Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to cancers of the breast, prostate, colon, and liver; heart disease; and depression. While the studies don’t conclusively prove that low vitamin D causes these issues, they have shown a correlation that people with higher levels of vitamin D have a lower risk of these problems.

In short, you don’t want to be lacking in this vitamin!

Who is most at risk for vitamin D deficiency?

Vitamin D is also known as “the sunshine vitamin” since your body can only produce it when the sun hits your skin. There are certain populations for which this can pose a challenge:

…If you use sunscreen or cover up when outdoors.

Unfortunately, the same UVB rays your sunscreen is blocking are the same UVB rays that you need to produce vitamin D. And if you cover your skin with clothing, it can’t absorb the sun’s rays, either.

…If you work indoors or have limited exposure to the sun.

If most of your days are spent indoors, you’re likely not getting enough sun. Even if your desk is by a window, UVB rays can’t penetrate through glass (although harmful UVA rays can).

…If you live too far north or south.

As you get closer to the equator, the sun’s rays are stronger and more direct, and it’s easier for your body to produce Vitamin D year-round. But, in the Northeast, for example, Vitamin D can’t be produced by the skin from November through March.

…If you have dark skin.

The melanin that causes pigmentation of darker skin inhibits the amount of Vitamin D that can be produced. Black Americans have, on average, half the amount of vitamin D in their blood as their white counterparts. 82% of blacks and 69% of Hispanics are deficient, far above the national average of 42%.

…If you have certain health challenges.

People with Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or cystic fibrosis can’t absorb dietary fat adequately, and vitamin D requires some fat in order to be absorbed into the body.

People with liver or kidney disease are also at risk, because the liver and kidney are needed to convert vitamin D into the active form that can be used by the body.

…If you are obese.

Excess fat cells bind to the vitamin D and interferes with it effectively circulating through the blood..

The three ways to get your vitamin D

1. Get vitamin D through sun exposure.

Some scientists believe that sunlight is the best way to get vitamin D because the actual process of converting sunlight to vitamin D creates additional benefits to the body that we can’t get any other way.

In reality, getting your full amount of vitamin D in this way may be difficult. In addition to the factors above, getting adequate vitamin D through your skin is heavily dependent upon your geographic location, skin tone, age, overall health, season, sunscreen use, time of day, and air pollution. Most of these factors are out of our control.

2. Get vitamin D from food.

There are some foods that naturally contain vitamin D. Most of them are seafood: salmon, tuna, sardines and other fatty fish; cod liver oil, shrimp. Egg yolks are also a good source of vitamin D.

Mushrooms contain vitamin D, though in a different form (vitamin D2 instead of vitamin D3) which is not as beneficial.

Milk, orange juice, and cereals are often fortified with Vitamin D.

Unless you consume cod liver oil every day, it is difficult to consume the recommended daily amount of vitamin D through food alone.

3. Get vitamin D from supplements.

Vitamin D supplements can be obtained over the counter from your local drugstore or grocery store. There is no consensus on the recommended amount to take, though the National Institutes of Health recommends 600 IU (international units) per day for adults under 70. However, for most Americans, supplementing 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day of vitamin D is generally safe — you’ll want to discuss dosage with your doctor. Look for D3 (as opposed to D2) and one with added magnesium.

Which is the best way to get vitamin D?

The best approach is a combination of all three methods. Because it is difficult to safely get enough sun, and difficult to consume enough vitamin D containing foods, you may want to talk to your doctor about vitamin D supplements. For those with the risk factors above, supplementation is likely necessary.

How do I know if I’m deficient in vitamin D?

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency may be nonexistent for years, or may be vague. Some people complain of tiredness, aching muscles, or other chronic pain. It can be difficult to diagnose based on these symptoms alone.

The most accurate way to measure your vitamin D level is with a simple blood test by your doctor. If you’re in Hampton Roads, come see us at In and Out Express Care in one of our four urgent care locations. Our friendly doctors will be glad to put your mind at ease and advise whether and how much supplementation you may need.

The Sun: Friend or Foe?

A little bit of both. Just remember to respect the sun, and enjoy it safely. While it can be harmful in large doses, a little bit of sun is definitely good for you!

Have you had your vitamin D today?