I really enjoy this time of year. The weather is warm and not usually too hot, the plants are in bloom and still green from the winter rains, the sun comes up early and daylight lasts longer. If we were not still experiencing shelter in place lockdown we would be traveling to visit friends and relatives. Thankfully, I am quite content in my own back yard. I am restarting my vegetable garden and I am enjoying the bird song and watching the squirrels as they compete for the sunflower seeds I put out for them. All this bucolic relaxation reminds me that being out in nature has a profound and positive effect on health. We need the sun, fresh air, and greenery to maintain good health, strong immunity, and a calm disposition.
Let’s talk about sunshine. We need exposure to sunlight to support health. The trick is to get just what you need, and not too much. We need the sun to set our circadian rhythm, to help us wake up and to know when to sleep. Our sense of when to eat is also regulated by this natural day/night pattern, along with our activity levels and how regular our habits are.
The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) spectrum consists of UVA and UVB rays. The UVA rays can damage the skin and accelerate aging. The UVB rays are the ones that we need to produce the hormone vitamin D to maintain strong bones and teeth, to support mental health, and to balance immunity but they cause sunburns and also can damage the skin. The sun’s UVB rays shine into the skin (when we are without sunscreens) and activate the production of vitamin D by converting cholesterol into 25-(OH) vitamin D, AKA calcidiol. Calcidiol is converted into the active form 1, 25-(OH)2 vitamin D or calcitriol.
Unfortunately, signs of vitamin D deficiency are not unique to vitamin D, and include: fatigue, low mood or depression, getting sick often, unexplained aches and pains, and weak bones and fractures. Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is associated with, and may be partially caused by, vitamin D deficiency. The flu season occurs in late winter after our stored vitamin D may run low due to a lack of exposure to sunlight on the skin when the weather is cold and the sun’s rays are weaker. Vitamin D along with vitamin A supports a strong but balanced immune system, enabling us to resist both diseases and autoimmune conditions.
The only way to accurately determine if you are deficient is to get your blood tested for 25-OH vitamin D. Functional medicine practitioners do not all agree on ideal levels, but most experts suggest values between 35 and 50 ng/ml are needed to maintain optimal health. (Standard laboratory ranges are from 20-100 ng/ml.) A supplement of 2000 to 5000 IU (50 to 125 mcg) of vitamin D3 with 100 - 200 mcg of K2 is the usual maintenance dose range. More is not better. Too much vitamin D, or the incorrect ratio of vitamin D to vitamin K2 can create calcium deposits in the arteries (resulting in heart disease), kidney stones, or calcified ligaments, and tendons. Vitamin K2 properly directs calcium to the bones and teeth, where it belongs.
Another caution: Supplementing with vitamin D3 can increase your need for vitamin A, another important fat soluble vitamin we need for good health and balanced immunity. Thankfully, natural food sources of vitamin D such as cod liver oil, fatty fish, pasture raised organ meats, butter, ghee, and cheese also contain the other fat soluble vitamins A, K and E.
The body is smart. Tanning regulates our production of vitamin D from the sun by increasing melanin levels in the skin. Melanin is the pigment that darkens the skin and prevents some absorption of UVB rays, and so in those with dark skin longer exposure to the sun is needed to increase blood levels of vitamin D. For those whose skin burns easily in the sun, much care is needed. Limiting sun exposure to 5-10 minutes per day may be necessary to prevent sunburn and still allow production of vitamin D. For many people who need more vitamin D but cannot get sunshine on a regular basis, it is recommended to eat foods naturally rich in vitamins D3, K2, and A such as liver paté.
Here is a recipe for those like me who do not like liver: Laura’s Liver paté
You can carefully get sunshine on your legs and arms without sunscreen for the amount of time appropriate for your skin tone and latitude. Then if you are going to be outside longer put on a safe sunscreen or cover up. So enjoy being outdoors in nature, and get some sunshine to improve your health, just don’t get sunburned. Happy Solstice.
I just received a copy of Dr. Lani's No Nonsense SUN Health Guide which I will be reviewing in next month's blog. Stay tuned.