Here comes the sun–and you might want to make sure you spend enough time in it! Why? While there are a variety of benefits from sunlight, one of the most talked about is how sunlight supplies vitamin D. Vitamin D is a popular topic of conversation for a good reason; it is an essential vitamin for our immune health, ability to prevent chronic illness, mental health, and more. Yet, many people are vitamin D deficient, especially in winter time when the sunlight, one of the main sources of vitamin D, is less intense.
Even if you live somewhere cold and cloudy in winter, it’s possible to get enough vitamin D. In this guide, we’ll go over everything you need to know about vitamin D to improve your physical and mental health.
Harms of Not Getting Enough Vitamin D
Forty-two percent of North Americans have vitamin D levels below 20 ng/mL, which makes them deficient by most standards. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased risk for developing many diseases, including:
- Osteoporosis, broken bones and falls
- Kidney disease and kidney stones
- Fatty liver and other chronic liver diseases
- Heart disease and high blood pressure
- Type II diabetes
- Severe infections such as COVID-19 and Hepatitis C
- Multiple sclerosis
- Autoimmune diseases
- Colon, prostate and breast cancers
- Muscle pain and weakness
- Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Seasonal affective disorder
- Depression and other psychiatric disorders
Low blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D can lead to medical problems. However, some groups are especially at risk of suffering from these medical problems. Those who suffer from generalized muscle and joint pain, have osteoporosis (weak bones), are diabetic, have an auto-immune disease, are overweight, and/or are critically ill are more at risk than those who aren’t.
Where to Get Vitamin D
You need about fifteen minutes of sun on your arms and legs at midday in the summer to make enough vitamin D. When it isn’t summer, you need to get vitamin D from elsewhere. While the sun is the best source of Vitamin D, you can also get it from your diet. Eating at least two servings of fatty fish, like salmon or trout, twice a week, can provide you with vitamin D. The ideal serving is 4-5 ounces. If you don’t like fish or your diet doesn’t permit you to eat meat, there are alternatives, such as spinach, okra, kale, collards, and soybeans.
However, it’s hard for our bodies to break down vitamin D from food so it’s recommended you get at least 80% of your Vitamin D from sunlight or a supplement. When looking for a supplement, make sure you get a vitamin D3 supplement. While it is hard to get too much vitamin D from natural sources like the sun or fish, it is possible to get too much from a supplement. It’s important to discuss supplement options with a doctor before purchasing.
How to Test if You’re Deficient
Before buying a supplement, it might be beneficial to test your vitamin D levels with your doctor so you know which supplement is right for your current levels. The only dependable blood test to check if you are deficient in vitamin D is hydroxy vitamin D. Most experts feel that any level of hydroxy vitamin D above 20 ng/mL is normal.
Several studies show that 30 ng/mL may offer better protection against disease. Recent studies suggest that 30 ng/mL is more than adequate. Without a blood test, it’s not easy to know if you are deficient. However, you can consider how much time you spend in direct sunlight and adjust your daily routine accordingly. Ideally, you should spend as least 20 minutes a day in direct sunlight.
SAD and Vitamin D
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is commonly associated with low levels of vitamin D. One of the most common ways to beat SAD is to use light therapy. Light therapy requires a light therapy box which gives off a bright light that mimics the outdoor light traditionally supplied by the sun in sunnier climates. By mimicking outdoor light, researchers believe that the light can actually cause a chemical change in your brain which helps reduce your symptoms. This is in part due to the short wavelength light, which mimics the wavelength of the sun, and is thought to help with mood and sleep, mitigating the symptoms of SAD.
Increasing vitamin D levels through increased exposure to sunlight, adding foods high in vitamin D, and taking a vitamin D supplement also help combat SAD. Interestingly, there is no evidence to prove light therapy provides vitamin D as the light needs to come from the sun in order for our bodies to produce vitamin D. A vitamin D supplement and light therapy can work together to combat seasonal depression.
Vitamin D and Immunity
In the wake of 2020, many people began to research how to strengthen their immunity against diseases like COVID. In general, getting enough vitamins and nutrients is essential to fighting off diseases, but vitamin D in particular improves immune functions.
A 2020 study found people who had healthy vitamin D levels were less likely to suffer severe side effects from COVID. The researchers suggested vitamin D might be a measure to prevent COVID and to avoid more severe symptoms. However, this study, along with many studies on the topic, point to a correlational relationship between vitamin D levels and COVID-19 prevention. They recommend more research around this subject needs to be done for more conclusive results.
There’s no denying it: vitamin D is an invaluable factor to our health. Even when it can be difficult to get enough vitamin D from summer sunlight, it’s important to add foods high in vitamin D or a supplement to your diet in order to fight against disease, reduce your risk of chronic illnesses, and live a healthier life.
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