With skin cancer awareness on the rise, many people may not realize that their aversion to the sun is actually causing a much greater problem—vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that we need for many functions in the body. Without it, we would not survive. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to chronic pain, depression, fatigue, asthma, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, obesity, poor heart health, and cancer. On the other hand, too much vitamin D—also called vitamin D toxicity—can be pretty nasty as well.
How can you stay healthy this summer with just the right amount of vitamin D? Let’s get into everything there is to know about this essential nutrient.
Sources of Vitamin D
There are two natural ways to get vitamin D: from food and from the sun. Food sources of vitamin D are few and far between, limited to mushrooms, fish, certain meat products, eggs, and fortified foods (i.e., tofu, yogurt, cereal, milk).
The foods that do contain vitamin D don’t contain enough of it to satisfy our bodies, and so the best way for us to get vitamin D is through sunlight exposure.
Since the beginning of humankind until the last few hundred years, people depended solely on sun exposure as a source of vitamin D. Depending on their proximity to the equator, humans in different parts of the world got more or less sun exposure, and they developed the skin color to compensate.
So, people who lived closer to the equator—in places with a lot of sun—had darker skin, while those farther from the equator had lighter skin. As a result, dark-skinned people require a lot more sun exposure to make the same amount of vitamin D that a light-skinned person would make in a shorter amount of time.
Role of Vitamin D in the Body
When we are exposed to ultraviolet B light, our bodies create vitamin D3, also called cholecalciferol, in the skin. The vitamin D then enters the bloodstream, where it is transported to the liver and turned into a prohormone called calcidiol. It then goes through another conversion process in the kidneys, where it is made into a hormone called calatinol.
Calatinol plays a major role in the regulation of mineral concentration in the blood, neuromuscular and immune system functioning, and gene proliferation.
That’s the reason that vitamin D deficiency symptoms include bone softening (when there is not enough vitamin D, there is not enough calcium), muscle cramps and weakness, fatigue, depression, digestive problems, low immunity, mood changes, and obesity.
How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?
People who take vitamin D supplements are told that the recommended amounts are 400 international units (IU) for children up to 12 months old, 600 IU for ages 1 to 70, and 800 IU for people over the age of 70. (1)
Since most people can get enough vitamin D through sun exposure, you probably don’t need to worry about taking a vitamin D supplement. The best way to find out would be to take a blood test—25(OH)D levels should be between 50 and 70.
The optimal amount of daily sun exposure will depend on two things: your skin color and your place of residence. The darker your skin, the more sunlight you’ll require for your body to produce enough vitamin D. If you start getting a sunburn, you’ve definitely had enough. Twenty minutes per day is the average amount of time recommended, give or take a few minutes based on your personal situation.
People with medical conditions that affect nutrient absorption—like celiac disease—often have low levels of vitamin D and may, therefore, be instructed by their doctors to take supplements.
What about Skin Cancer?
Just because we need sun exposure for vitamin D doesn’t mean we should throw all caution to the wind.
Skin cancer is a real threat, but with awareness on the rise, skin cancer prevalence curiously continues to rise as well. The threat is not just coming from the sun, it seems.
In the determination to not get skin cancer, we slather on products that promise to protect us from those mean UV rays when, in fact, those products contain some nasty cancer-causing chemicals themselves. Add that to vitamin D deficiency from lack of sun exposure—which also causes cancer—and we’ve gotten ourselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Sun causes cancer and no sun causes cancer as well.
The solution? First, to remember that sun exposure is good in moderation. Second, to always keep in mind that sunburn raises your chances of skin cancer, so when you start to burn, you’ve had enough. Third, to switch to natural sunscreens with pure zinc oxide solutions. Fourth, to attend annual checkups with your dermatologist.
In addition, make sure that your magnesium and vitamin K levels are healthy, otherwise, your body may have a difficult time metabolizing vitamin D.
Vitamin D Toxicity
It’s nearly impossible to get too much vitamin D just from your diet and sun exposure. Vitamin D toxicity—also called hypervitaminosis D—rarely occurs, but it does. It’s from unnecessary vitamin D supplementation.
Vitamin D toxicity causes a buildup of calcium in the blood, resulting in nausea, vomiting, weakness, and frequent urination. In severe cases, symptoms may include bone pain and kidney problems, such as calcium stones. (2)
For this reason, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting to take any kind of new supplement.
Get the Right Amount of Vitamin D
The key to getting enough vitamin D and staying safe in the sun is all in the balance. Follow these tips to make sure you’re getting the right amount of vitamin D this summer.
- Get outside and in the sun, but seek shade before your skin starts to burn (average of 20 minutes)
- Eat vitamin D-fortified foods as well as fish, eggs, and mushrooms
- For long sun exposure, use natural sunscreen or a pure zinc oxide solution
- If you think you may be deficient in vitamin D, get a blood test to find out
- Take vitamin D supplements only if necessary (if your blood levels are low or if you have a medical condition like the celiac disease that causes malabsorption)
- Make sure you are getting enough magnesium and vitamin K
Vitamin D deficiency can have some serious health consequences long term. It has been linked to many different medical conditions, including asthma, depression, fatigue, obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, poor heart health, and cancer.
Get enough vitamin D by spending about 20 minutes a day in the sun. Vitamin D supplementation is usually not necessary unless you have an underlying medical condition that causes malabsorption.
Stay safe this summer with natural sunscreen and cover-ups, but make sure to get your daily dose of the sunshine vitamin!