When you want to improve your health, you most likely think of eating healthy, working out, and maybe even investing in your mental health. But there are other elements which can impact how healthy you are. An unexpected one? Getting enough sunlight.
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
- Seasonal affective disorder
- Colon, prostate and breast cancers
- Muscle pain and weakness
- Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- 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 very obese, and/or are critically ill are more at risk than those who aren’t.
And Vitamin D isn’t the only thing you need to get from sunlight. Read on to discover the health benefits of sunlight beyond Vitamin D!
Are You Deficient?
After reading all the possible medical problems that can come from a Vitamin D deficiency, you might be wondering how to tell if you’re deficient.
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.
If you live in an environment where there are a lot of clouds or it gets too cold to be outside in the winter, check out light therapy as an alternative.
Sources of Vitamin D
The main source of vitamin D is usually sunlight. Ultraviolet rays convert cholesterol in your skin to vitamin D. You cannot get an overdose of vitamin D from sunlight since the sunlight also breaks down vitamin D in your skin. Foods are also a limited source of vitamin D. You need to get more than 80 percent of your vitamin D from sunlight or pills. If you do get some of your vitamin D from food, the best sources include:
- Fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon and so forth)
- Egg yolks
A third option to get vitamin D is vitamin D pills. However, these pills are not as effective as direct sunlight. Some of the conditions thought to be caused by lack of vitamin D may not be cured by taking vitamin D pills because they actually may be caused by lack of sunlight.
Vitamin D Pills Do Not Cure All
Many studies show that risks for these diseases have not been reduced by taking vitamin D pills. Dr. JoAnn Manson and her associates at Harvard Medical School showed that giving 2,000 IU of vitamin D/day and one gram/day of omega-3 fatty acids for five years to 25,871 U.S. men and women 50 years of age or older did nothing to reduce deaths from heart attacks, strokes, or cancers of the breast, prostate, colon or rectum.
A study that followed 217,244 Danish people for up to 10 years found that vitamin D pills did not protect them from developing cancers. Higher blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D were not associated with protection from breast, colo-rectal, urinary, ovarian or uterine cancers, and were associated with increased risk for non-melanoma skin cancers, melanoma, prostate and blood cancers, but a reduced incidence of lung cancer.
The most recognized function of vitamin D is to strengthen bones, yet taking up to 48,000 IU of vitamin D per month for a year did not cause any increase in bone density in 379 men and women over 70.
Daily supplementation with 4000 IU of vitamin D for three years did not improve heart attack risk markers for 161 patients in heart failure.
Other Benefits from Sunlight
While many people focus on vitamin D, sunlight offers other benefits as well. Sunlight causes the skin to manufacture vitamin D, but it also causes the skin to make large amounts of nitric oxide. This is the reason you not only want to focus on getting Vitamin D, but getting enough sunlight specifically.
Nitric oxide can lower or prevent high blood pressure. Exposing the skin to 30 minutes of summer sunlight caused nitric oxide levels to go up and high blood pressure to go down. This isn’t the only benefit of high nitric oxide levels.
Higher nitric oxide levels have been associated with lower levels of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can turn into a number of harmful conditions, most notably diabetes. People who get ample sunlight are less likely to become diabetic.
A study of sunlight exposure in mice showed that it also prevented obesity and metabolic syndrome independent of vitamin D in mice fed a high-fat diet. Time in sunlight can help stop cravings for unhealthy food and prevent metabolic syndrome.
Another study in mice showed that ultraviolet light suppressed weight gain, glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, and lowered blood levels of fasting insulin, glucose and cholesterol, and that vitamin D pills did not produce these benefits.
Exposure to sunlight also helps to prevent infections including tuberculosis and lowers cholesterol. Sunlight converts squalene in the skin to both cholesterol and vitamin D, so sunlight may lower cholesterol by shifting squalene conversion to vitamin D, rather than to cholesterol.
Next time you’re making changes to improve your health, remember it’s not only about what you eat or how often you workout. Spending ample time in sunlight can improve levels of Vitamin D and nitric acid in your body. This can lead to an array of health benefits and prevent certain medical conditions.