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The Sunshine Vitamin
Posted on Jul 19, 2013 by Bridget Greenlee (G+)
How to safely get enough Vitamin D and improve overall health
Vitamin D is an interesting vitamin, because it is not easily obtained from food like many other vitamins and minerals important to human beings’ health. Instead, Vitamin D is most easily obtained via the sunlight, though can also be ingested through supplements. This also means that the amounts that different people get can vary greatly around the world, so it’s important to know about Vitamin D and be aware of individual needs.
Vitamin D in the body
When Vitamin D is taken into the body, either through the sun or through supplements, the body has to convert and change it a number of times before it can be effectively used. After this process, the Vitamin D is used to control the amount of calcium in the blood, bones, and gut and to aid in cell communication throughout the body. Vitamin D is also needed to aid in the absorption of calcium and phosphorous. Even if a person eats enough foods with calcium and phosphorous, the body will not be able to use these without ample Vitamin D in the body to help absorb them. The entire body benefits from healthy levels of Vitamin D. Bones, muscles, heart, lungs, brain, infection-fighting ability, and overall health are improved with Vitamin D.
Doctors and scientists began to understand the benefits of Vitamin D when they realized its association with rickets. Rickets is a disease in children where the bones are soft and weak and can cause bow legs that bend under the child’s weight when he or she begins to walk. This condition of soft, thin, and brittle bones can also occur in adults, when it is called osteomalacia. Of course, this is a dangerous condition that can cause a number of injuries, especially due to falls. Doctors took note of the low levels of Vitamin D in the people with these conditions. Today, rickets is rare in the developed world but is still an issue in many places. Along with rickets and osteomalacia, low levels of Vitamin D are associated with higher mortality, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, poor immunity, and even cancer. There is still a lot of research being done and things that need to be learned to better understand Vitamin D’s relationship to these other illnesses and conditions but it is proving to be very important to not just bone health but to overall health and the prevention of disease.
How it works
It is easy to see why Vitamin D is an important part of general health and wellbeing, but since this vitamin is so unique in the way it is absorbed, it is important to know how to make sure to get enough of it. The best way to get Vitamin D is through the sunlight. Vitamin D is actually made by the body itself, another difference between it and other vitamins. The skin simply has to be exposed to the ultraviolet B rays of the sunlight for the body to produce the vitamin. The danger in this lies in knowing how much sun is too much. Most people are aware of the dangers of overexposure to the sun. Skin cancer, premature aging, eye damage, and immune system suppression are all risks of too much sun so it is very important to avoid overexposure to the sun.
Getting the balance right
So how much sun is enough? The body can get the sunlight it needs very quickly, especially in summer. The general rule is that the time in the sun needed is about half the time it takes for the skin to turn pink and begin to burn. Of course, it’s hard to tell when one is halfway to beginning to burn, so it’s important to keep checking and monitoring sun exposure. The amount of time varies greatly by person too. There is a skin type scale that can help one assess about how fast one may burn. The scale begins with very fair-skinned people, with blond or red hair, freckles, and blue eyes who always burn and never tan and goes up to black-skinned people who never burn and tan very easily.
The scale can be found here. This can be used to compare generally how much more time in the sun someone will need compared to others and based on his or her skin type. Someone on the dark-skinned end of the scale may need up to six times longer in the sun to get adequate Vitamin D compared to someone with very fair skin. Another factor in determining how much Vitamin D one is exposed to is his or her location. The farther away one is from the equator, the more of an angle the sun hits that area at and the less UVB rays are available for the body to use to make Vitamin D. The time of year is also a factor, as the rays are much stronger and easier to use to make Vitamin D in the summer months.
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Indoor tanning beds can also be a good way to get needed Vitamin D and make up for the sunshine deficit during the long, sunless winter months. The same precautions should be used in tanning beds to avoid overexposure as in the natural sunlight. When in doubt, Vitamin D supplements, specifically Vitamin D3, are always a good and safe way to make sure the minimum requirements are obtained, especially for people in climates where they do not get much sunlight or for people that are concerned about sun damage to their skin.