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The Sunshine Vitamin

In last week’s blog, I mentioned a benefit of walking outside is getting some vitamin D. But some of you might be wondering what exactly is vitamin D, why do we need it, how much do we need, and where do we get it?

So what exactly is Vitamin D and why do we need it? You might be surprised to learn that it is actually a hormone. When skin is exposed to Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, your body can produce vitamin D. Pretty cool, right? But why do we need it? Because it does all kinds of stuff. It helps control calcium levels, regulates the immune system, balances minerals in our blood, supports heart, thyroid, and nervous system health and more! Bad things happen if you don’t get enough. Low vitamin D levels can increase the risk of cancer, cause a fast heartbeat, contribute to Type 1 diabetes, cause weak bones, and lead to tooth decay. And you know what else? If you don’t get enough vitamin D, you’ll feel awful. Exhausted, hopeless, and unmotivated. I know because at one point my levels were very low. I was constantly tired and depressed. It made everyday life so hard!

Another way to get vitamin D is from your food. You can eat fortified dairy or pastured eggs. Here’s an interesting tidbit. Eggs from pastured hens have more Vitamin D than factory eggs. Sardines, salmon, and cod liver oil are other sources of vitamin D. But news flash, it’s difficult to get a sufficient amount from food. The best and most efficient way to get it is from the sun. But we’re Americans, we’re busy, and we don’t like going outside where there’s no AC. So, we need more. Thankfully, vitamin D supplements are available.

Think you might need a vitamin D supplement? Well, how much you need depends on several factors. The main factors are where you live and how much time you spend in the sun. It is easier for the UVB rays to reach places closer to the equator. The closer you live to the equator, the easier it is for you to produce this vitamin. Where I live, in West Virginia, much of our sunlight is blocked by mountains, shade, and lots of rain. If you’re in this area, think about getting your levels checked.

To make things more difficult, there are other factors that go into how much vitamin D your body produces. It gets even more confusing because the problem makers are actually things we should be doing. Want to know what they are? Wearing sunscreen and showering after being in the sun. Seriously. (Don’t stop doing these things.) Wearing sunscreen is important because it blocks UVB rays thereby decreasing our risk of skin cancer. On the other hand, it is blocking your skin from getting what it needs to create vitamin D. If you do receive enough UVB to create vitamin D, it will form on the surface of your skin and can take up to 48 hours to absorb. So if you lather up in the shower after coming in from outside, you could be washing off the vitamin D. We need to use sunscreen and take showers. Thankfully, supplements are effective and available. Age will also affect how much vitamin D your body is able to make. As you get older it is harder for your body to produce this vitamin. Is there anything that gets easier as we get older?

So let’s say you’re a lifeguard in Florida and in the sun every day. You’re still not out of the woods because there are sometimes issues with absorption. Certain diseases that affect the intestines, such as celiac, can reduce the absorption of vitamin D. Additionally, certain medications can interfere with your body’s vitamin D levels making them go down or up. There are so many things to consider.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. To put it simply this means that you can take too much and suffer from negative consequences. This is uncommon but a good reason to test and know your levels. Vitamin D levels aren’t routinely tested so talk to your doc. Bring it up at your appointment if you want your doctor to test it for you.

If your doctor has said you need to start taking vitamin D you will notice that it’s measured in International Units (IUs) and is available as D2 or D3. D3 is used by the body more efficiently (but it’s from animal sources so if you’re a vegetarian you might want alternative options). The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D is 600 IUs. Many people need more than this. Your doctor can help you get to the right level for you.

So now you know all about vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin. It’s a hormone our body needs for many different functions and it’s created by exposure to the sun. You can get some from food but probably not enough. Checking with your doctor to see if you need a supplement is a good idea. It’s just one vitamin but it affects many different functions in the body. Keeping it at the optimal level can go a long way towards helping you reach your wellness goals.

How much time do you spend in the sun? Let us know in the comments.

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