The Many Benefits Of Vitamin D And The Sun
By Marilee Nelson |
Vitamin D is one of the most essential nutrients for maintaining bone health, immunity, and heart health.
It’s also critical for optimal growth and development in children, and has even been associated with a decreased risk of certain cancers (more on this coming up).
Thanks to new research, modern medicine now understands this. Which is why most progressive doctors and integrative health practitioners recommend regular vitamin D labs, daily unprotected sun exposure, and supplementation to prevent deficiencies.
Wait…did we say daily unprotected sun exposure? Yes we did. And we’ll explain all this, and much more coming up.
If you’re concerned (or confused) about vitamin D deficiency, its nutritional functions and benefits, the safest way to get sun exposure, the best vitamin D supplements, and the other health benefits of sunshine read on.
How To Know If You’re Deficient In Vitamin D
Just a few years ago, the general medical consensus was that vitamin D deficiency was a rare occurrence. And certainly not a good reason to spend extra time in the sun.
However, all that changed less than a decade ago, when researchers started linking vitamin D deficiency to a slew of modern chronic diseases.
So, just how many of us are deficient? According to recent data, about 50% of the global population is deficient in vitamin D.
That means 1 out of 2 people aren’t getting enough to maintain a base level of health.
This is why most annual physicals now include a vitamin D screening. And this is the best way to determine whether you’re deficient.
However, if you talk to progressive functional medicine doctors, they’ll tell you that functional vitamin D ranges can differ from what’s considered normal.
And that “optimal” levels can vary person to person based on your health history, genetics, gender, season of life (pregnant, breastfeeding, etc.), and current state of health.
Bottom line: a simple lab test, either ordered by you (yes, you can order your own labs) or your doctor, will show if you’re deficient.
However, if you’re dealing with a chronic health condition (or are just really interested in individualized medicine…like us) you may wish to consult a integrative functional medicine doctor or health practitioner for specific recommendations.
Why Are 50% Of Us Vitamin D Deficient?
The main reason is: we spend far less time outside than any generation before us.
And when we do go outdoors, we’re often covered up from head-to-toe in sunscreen, hats, and even UV-protective clothing.
Now, sun protection does have its time and place. Especially for those who are very fair skinned, live near the equator, and/or have a history of skin cancer.
However, since 50-90% of our vitamin D should come from the sun, it is obvious, and has been confirmed by science, that we aren’t getting enough sunshine.
In addition, certain chronic diseases such as celiac, inflammatory bowel disease, and cystic fibrosis increase the risk of deficiency. As does liver disease and certain medications which impact the liver pathway involved in vitamin D and calcium synthesis.
Which makes you wonder about the role liver toxicity may play in all this (but that’s a topic for another day!).
Vitamin D Helps Your Whole Body Work Better
We mentioned a few of the ways vitamin D and sunshine benefit your health in the introduction. The following is a more detailed explanation of just a few ways this essential nutrient can optimize your health and prevent disease.
Optimal Vitamin D Levels May Reduce Your Risk Of Type 2 Diabetes
When we think of vitamin D, we usually think about it in relation to bone health.
However, research has shown that people with higher vitamin D levels have a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
The 2013 review analyzed combined studies on how much vitamin D people were getting by measuring their vitamin D blood level. They then followed participants to see if they got type 2 diabetes later in life.
Researchers found that participants with the highest vitamin D levels had a decreased risk of diabetes compared to those with the lowest vitamin D levels.
High-Dose Vitamin D Supplementation Can Aid Menstrual Problems
Menstrual difficulties are afflicting more teens and young women than ever before.
Before we started on our paths to natural living and detoxifying our homes, we (the Branch Basics’ Founders) all suffered varying levels of menstrual and reproductive problems, from extensive endometriosis and debilitating cramps (Marliee), to PCOS and infertility (Allison), and annoying PMS symptoms (Kelly). We found that tossing the toxins in our food and products we used resulted in resolution of all menstrual and hormonal issues.
If, after tossing the toxins, additional help is needed, it has been found that, high-dose vitamin D supplementation may offer some relief for teens.
In one study, researchers found that high-dose vitamin D supplementation (50,000 IU/week of cholecalciferol) can reduce the prevalence of PMS and dysmenorrhea as well as the physical and psychological symptoms of PMS in teen girls.
Although the researchers didn’t speculate on why it worked, it’s likely a combination of its beneficial effects on hormonal balance (vitamin D is also a hormone!) and inflammation.
One note: do not attempt high-dose vitamin D supplementation alone!
It is important to work with a healthcare professional to have your vitamin D levels checked and possibly monitored before trying out a high-dose regime. Although overdosing isn’t common, it can happen.
Optimal Vitamin D Levels Protect Your Heart
Despite decades of new research, dietary recommendations, and medical advancements heart disease is still the #1 killer of Americans (with cancer a close second).
And although the physical, mental, and emotional causal factors behind heart disease are complex, it appears vitamin D plays a significant role.
Vitamin D Is Essential For Immune Health
Vitamin C has always been the go-to supplement for boosting immunity—and it’s still an incredible ally.
However, new research shows that vitamin D may be even more beneficial for fortifying the immune system in the short- and long-term.
Vitamin D works by helping regulate and modulate (which means helping to adapt) the immune system. For this reason, it’s been associated with beneficial effects on acute illnesses—like the seasonal flu, COVID, and other acute and chronic upper respiratory conditions. It’s also been found helpful for preventing and aiding autoimmune conditions.
Bottom line: our immune systems are our best defense against acute and chronic disease. By optimizing our vitamin D levels, we give our immune systems a wealth of short- and long-term protective health benefits.
Learn more about optimizing immunity with nutrition in: What We Do When We Get Sick.
Vitamin D Protects Bone Health (especially when paired with vitamin K2)
Multiple studies have shown the protective benefit vitamin D has on bone health and preventing osteoporsis. This is because of its positive effect on calcium absorption.
When it comes to supplementation, many doctors and health professionals recommend taking vitamin D with vitamin K2. The reason is that the vitamin K2 acts like a shuttle, guiding the calcium the vitamin D3 frees up directly to your bones (vs your arteries, for example).
Research has also confirmed that vitamin D in the presence of K2 is better absorbed than vitamin D taken alone.
Vitamin D May Prevent Certain Cancers
There is ample evidence of an association between vitamin D levels and an increased risk of certain cancers.
For example, one landmark study published in PLOS One found that women over the age of 55 with higher vitamin D levels (≥40 ng/ml) had a 65% lower incidence of various types of cancer.
Additional studies have found an association between lower vitamin D serum levels and an increased risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and even types of skin cancer.
Unfortunately, despite all this evidence (and plenty more we didn’t have space to list) medical science is still officially undecided on whether or not vitamin D reduces cancer risk.
We’ll leave it up to you to talk to your doctor/health care practitioner and evaluate the evidence for yourself.
For us, it’s a no-brainer: getting enough vitamin D is a good idea as part of an overall preventative health strategy.
Additional Benefits Of Sun Exposure
Beyond vitamin D optimization, getting enough sunshine has many other health benefits. Including:
- Improving cognitive function.
- Fighting sleep disorders by resetting circadian rhythm. We recommend getting early morning sun exposure every day for best results.
- Improving mental/emotional well-being by boosting serotonin levels.
- Enhancing life expectancy in women.
- Creating better motor development in infants and less postpartum depression in mothers.
- Relief from chronic skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, etc.
How To Get Enough Vitamin D
There are 3 ways to get more vitamin D in your body:
#1: Get enough sunshine.
Regular unprotected sun exposure is the most effective and natural way to get your vitamin D.The key here is to practice sensible sunning. Which means: not too much and not too little.
So, how much do you need?
Studies suggest spending about 20-30 minutes outside at noon (when the sun is at its zenith and shooting the strongest rays of UVA/UVB rays) without sunscreen will give you the optimal amounts of Vitamin D.
This may sound counter-intuitive but if you take advantage of when the sun is strongest, you’ll get the highest levels of UVA/UVB rays in the shortest amount of time. Which minimizes the risk of over-exposure.
If you can’t (or don’t care to) make it out at high noon, check with your doctor about the right amount of sun exposure for your skin type, time of day, season, and geographical location.
Supplementing vitamin D is a great way to ensure you’re getting an established daily value…no matter what the weather.
We personally take vitamin D supplements in the cooler months, then either greatly reduce the dosage or take a break in the summer months when we’re getting more sunshine.
You can talk to your doctor or health care practitioner about the best approach for you based on your serum levels, lifestyle, the season, etc.
The best form of vitamin D is a D3/K2 blend. This combination has been found to enhance absorption of vitamin D3 and benefit calcium transportation.
We’d also recommend using a whole-foods-based supplement with no excipients, artificial ingredients, or fillers.
The best amount for you depends on your existing serum levels, health conditions, whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, and other factors.
So talk to your practitioner about optimal dosage.
Most of vitamin D should come from the sun. However, certain foods do contain helpful amounts of vitamin D, including:
- Fatty fish such as wild-caught salmon and sardines
- Mushrooms exposed to sunshine
- Egg yolks (from organic, pastured eggs please!)
Some foods, such as milk, are fortified with vitamin D.
However, since we have no way of knowing the quality of the vitamin D used in the fortification, we personally don’t count on this as a good source.
Want To Learn More?
Join us on Instagram @branchbasics, and check out these additional resources:
- What You Should Know About Vitamin D, Sunscreen, And Healthy Sun Protection
- The Best Healthy, Non-Toxic Sunscreens
- Your Quick Guide To Vetting Dietary Supplements
Enjoy the sunshine!
Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.