Did you know that you have access to free preventative care from high blood pressure, type I diabetes, heart disease and even colon cancer? Did you know you could find it right in your backyard?
That’s right; it’s the sun! The sun is the single largest source of Vitamin D, the nutrient responsible for calcium absorption as reported by WedMD.
The US government’s recommendations for Vitamin D intake range between 200 and 600 *IUs (*international unit – usually used to measure fat soluble vitamins) every day; but many doctors think we need more. According to Michael F. Holick, PhD, MD, who heads the Vitamin D, Skin, and Bone Research Laboratory at Boston University School of Medicine, you should aim for at least 1000 IUs of vitamin D a day to fight dangerous diseases.
While Vitamin D is found in some animal derived foods, according to the National Institutes of Health it’s usually not enough. 3 ounces of salmon and swordfish only supply about 500 IUs, while other fortified foods (such as milk, cereal, and orange juice) only supply 50-100 IUs of Vitamin D. The best way to consume adequate amounts of vitamin D is through sunlight or a Vitamin D supplement. Sunlight is the single largest supplier.
How Much Sunlight Do I Need?
It varies. The sunlight needed to produce Vitamin D depends upon 4 factors: the time of day, where you live, the color of your skin, and the amount of skin you expose. The Vitamin D Council recommends exposing your skin to sun in the middle of the day for optimal Vitamin D absorption. Living further away from the equator may mean you need to expose your skin for longer periods or take a vitamin D supplement. If you have darker skin, you may need to spend a longer time in the sun than those with fair to medium skin. Finally, it’s suggested you expose larger areas of skin for more Vitamin D absorption. For example, you may want to expose your back instead of your shoulders or face.
All of this may be confusing, so go by this rule of thumb from the Vitamin D Council: Get half the sun exposure it takes for your skin to begin to burn.
What Are the Other Benefits of Sun Exposure?
The sun is linked to many other health benefits as well. Increased UV light can increase your white blood cell count and help your body fight off infections. Additionally, sun exposure can play a pivotal role in our mental health.
Sunlight and Mental Wellness
You may have heard of SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a form of depression that usually occurs in the winter and ends in the summer. Like Major Depressive Disorder, it’s symptoms include loss of interest in activities, depressed mood, low energy, sleep disruptions, appetite changes, and even feelings of hopelessness. SAD that occurs in the winter also includes oversleeping, weight gain, and exhaustion.
Even if you don’t suffer from SAD, it’s important to know the causes of this illness to understand how to prevent it. Check out this article by the Mayo Clinic to learn more about SAD. Reduced sunlight exposure can drop serotonin levels, our feel-good brain chemical. It can also increase melatonin levels, the brain chemical that helps us sleep. Both our serotonin and our melatonin levels affect our circadian rhythm. If either brain chemical is off, we can notice a disruption in our biological clocks that can lead to feelings of depression and uneasiness.
Although you may not suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, Mark Levy, MD, chairman of the San Francisco Foundation for Psychoanalysis, suggests 30 minutes of exercise in the sun to fight off winter blues. Light boxes can also be prescribed to treat SAD; however, these are not to be confused with tanning beds, which can cause serious skin and eye damage.
Too Much of a Good Thing
While sunlight is necessary for our physical and mental well-being, too much sunlight can cause skin cancer and eye damage. After spending enough time in the sun to produce Vitamin D, it’s suggested you immediately use sunscreen. Sunscreen SPF, ingredients, and permanence all vary. If you haven’t found the right sunscreen, consider reading The Skin Cancer Foundation’s “Guide to Sunscreens.”
Bottom Line- Get Your Daily Dose of Sun to Stay Happy and Healthy
It’s important to spend time in the sun year-round for overall mental and physical health. While the threat of skin cancer may make you want to spend every day indoors, moderate sun exposure is necessary for proper Vitamin D, serotonin, and melatonin production. Use sunscreen and take safety precautions before spending large amounts of time in the sun; and, if you accidentally burn your skin, try this natural After Sun Gel from our June Wellness Wednesday talk.