In the past three decades the sun has become the cause of so much alarm due to its association with skin cancer. The more you get burned, especially earlier in life, the higher your risk of skin cancer. But on the other end of the spectrum, not getting outdoors often enough or wearing sunscreen every time that you are outside can cause a vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb the calcium it needs to build strong bones. A deficiency has also been linked to breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, depression, and weight gain. When it comes to skin damage and vitamin D, it’s all about balance.
Vitamin D Deficiencies Are Common
According to Harvard Health Publications, in the U.S., vitamin D deficiencies are “shockingly” common. As we spend less time with our sleeves rolled up out in the fields and more time churning away on our laptops, as many as one-third of young adults ages 18-29 and 40 percent of older adults ages 49-83 are vitamin D deficient.
How to Safely Get Enough Vitamin D From the Sun
The sun is the most natural and efficient way to get enough vitamin D, according to Dr. Eric Lewis, a naturopathic physician in Asheville, NC. In fact, the body was designed to get vitamin D this way. It’s a process that happens when the sun’s energy turns a chemical in the body into vitamin D3 (technically a hormone). It then travels to the liver where it picks up oxygen and hydrogen molecules to become 25-hydroxyvitamin D and finally it travels to the kidneys where it picks up more oxygen and hydrogen molecules to become 1,25 dihydroxyvitamin D, the form of vitamin D that the body needs to function properly.
The darker your skin, the more time it takes for your body to make enough vitamin D. But on average you need ten to 15 minutes in the sun without sunscreen. It also depends on how far south that you live and the time of year. According to Dr. Lewis, the best piece of advice is to get outside without sunscreen everyday. If you’re going to spend more than 15 minutes in the sun, especially during peak summer hours between 10 am and 4 pm, use some safe sunscreen protection as well as a wide-brimmed hat.
Getting Vitamin D From Your Diet
While you can get some vitamin D from your diet, according to Dr. Lewis, they’re aren’t a lot of food-based sources that provide enough vitamin D to make a difference. However, especially during the winter months (depending on where you live) these foods can help boost your intake:
- Wild caught salmon
- Fortified milk or non-dairy milks like almond, coconut, soy, or rice milk.
- Cod fish oil
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Canned tuna
- Fortified juices
Don’t Over Compensate with Supplements
Even though deficiency is a real problem among the population, Dr. Lewis advises against over supplementation. “I tend to be leery of over supplementation because it can come with so many side effects,” he says. “Too much vitamin D in the body can actually cause the body to lose calcium which is exactly the opposite of what patients want to happen. Over supplementing can also cause fatigue, brain fog, and insomnia.”
The best advice, he says, is to remember that everything is better in balance. If you’re concerned about your vitamin D levels, you can have them tested but don’t take high dose supplements without speaking to your healthcare provider first.