Most people have heard about Vitamin D in one way or another. Basking in the sun is casually referred to as ‘getting some vitamin D.’ But is everyone getting enough of this sunshine Vitamin? If not, what are the risks? How to ensure the optimal levels? Given that its deficiency might be widespread yet unrecognized; these facts are quite important to know!
Basics about the Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D is one of the essential and most unique nutrients. It is the only one that the human body can make itself – in presence of sunlight. Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun converts a form of cholesterol naturally found on the skin to Vitamin D. And that is why it has rightly earned the reputation as the sunshine Vitamin. As it is a fat-soluble Vitamin, the body can store it in our fat (adipose) tissues.
More and more emerging scientific knowledge show that Vitamin D has many different functions. Every single cell has a receptor for it which means it performs a multitude of roles in the body.
It is critical for:
· Strong bones and muscles as it helps the body absorb minerals like calcium and phosphorous
· Strong immune system
· Reducing the risk of various chronic diseases like heart diseases, diabetes, certain cancers and depression
· Better mental and emotional well-being
General Recommended Daily Allowance for Vitamin D is 600-800 International Units (IU)
More than 80 percent of our Vitamin D needs has to come from the sun. The skin by itself regulates production according to need, so one can never get too much Vitamin D from the sun.
Following foods also provide some of the requirements:
· Fatty fish (150g, 400 IU)
· Mushroom (100g fresh, 100 IU)
· Egg yolk (one yolk, 20 IU)
· Liver (100g, 12 IU)
· Fortified foods
Vitamin D from the sun last longer in the body making it the most efficient and the best source!
Insufficiency and Deficiency
· Bone and muscle weakness and pain
· Frequent infections
· Irritability and depression
· Hair loss
· Excessive sweating
· Sometimes there can be very subtle or even no symptoms!
A simple blood test (25OHD – hydroxy vitamin D) will tell if someone is sufficient, insufficient or deficient in vitamin D
· Daily, weekly or monthly supplements (as prescribed by the doctor)
· Take supplements after a meal containing healthy fats for absorption
· Recheck Vitamin D status after 2-3 months to ensure that the deficiency is corrected
· Supplements, when taken in excess and unsupervised, can lead to toxicity
While it is important to take supplements to correct the deficiency, one should not rely only on supplements to maintain the levels
· Staying indoors all day at work, school or home: sunlight coming through the glass will not work as UVB light will not penetrate!
· Covering up with clothes: sunlight will need to hit the skin to produce Vitamin D
· Applying sun screen while outside: may block or reduce Vitamin D production
· Areas with low sun exposure and cloudy weather: less UVB rays reach skin and less vitamin D is made
· Darker skin color: melanin blocks UVB rays making it take longer to produce Vitamin D from the sun
· Overweight and obesity: Vitamin D can get trapped in the fat cells resulting in low blood levels
· Elderly: aging reduces the capacity to produce Vitamin D
· Certain medical conditions: can affect absorption
· Air Pollution: soaks up the UVB rays or reflects it back into space
The further away from the equator, the lesser the Vitamin D production. See the Sunshine Calendar
Optimizing Vitamin D from the Sun
· Being in the sun 2-3 times a week, between 10 am to 2 pm for 15 – 30 minutes, is enough to meet the Vitamin D needs, yet avoiding skin problems
· Exposing large skin area makes more Vitamin D (parts that are often in the sun such as hands, face and neck can be covered to protect them)
· Vitamin D is made even faster while lying down, with the sun rays being perpendicular to the body
· Alternating between front side and back side helps to avoid sun damage to any one area
· Not immediately taking a shower or washing after the sun exposure as the Vitamin D production process takes some time
Nepali tradition of oil massage in the sun needs to be upheld!
Vitamin D deficiency in Nepal
Nepal lies at latitude 28 degrees north, a good area for vitamin D production. However, Vitamin D deficiency might be quite common in Nepal. It is indicated by a few researches, recent media coverage as well as increasing anecdotal reports (references below.) A representative population level survey would ascertain its actual prevalence. Public health measures could then be taken accordingly.
With conscious effort, we can easily take our own measures too. After all, it is too crucial not to… and the best way is to embrace the sunshine and let the body make the Vitamin D by itself!