In addition to sunlight’s soothing warmth, we need it to create vitamin D.
Described as a fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin D is in a class of its own. It is a pro-hormone, i.e. a substance the body converts into hormones. It is made when UVB rays from the sun react with cholesterol in our bare skin. Animals also make it in their wool, fur and feathers. This natural form is called vitamin D3. (In this article, vitamin D and vitamin D3 refer to the same thing.)
The body turns vitamin D3 into hormones essential for bone formation, bone strength and general health. If you get more than enough vitamin D3 to complete these tasks, the overflow creates a substance that helps to prevent disease and encourages your genes to work in a healthy way.
Current research sees vitamin D deficiency in the cause and progression of many illnesses, including depression (and Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, which can hit people in the darkness of winter), influenza, cancer, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases (e.g. MS), diabetes, chronic pain, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, muscle wasting, birth defects and periodontal disease. Researchers have found that people who live in sunny lands suffer less from chronic diseases.
In the modern world, vitamin D deficiency has become so bad that rickets – a sign of severe lack worthy of a Victorian workhouse – is making a comeback. Why?
In centuries past, humans worked in the fields and valued D-rich foods, such as organ meats, wild fatty fish and egg yolks. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been moving steadily indoors. Clothes, glass windows, tall shady buildings, smog, fog and cloud cover all block the sun’s UVB spectrum, which is vital for making vitamin D. As a result, we make less D3 in our skin and our move away from D-rich foods has lessened our supplementary source.
Sunscreen and sun avoidance are also culprits. Over the past 25 years, increased skin cancer fears have caused governments to adopt strong anti-sun policies. To some degree these make sense, especially in hot countries like Australia that are home to citizens of fair-skinned origin. But sunscreen and sun avoidance also mean less vitamin D.
Until recently, sunscreens blocked the UVB rays that make vitamin D because (a) they burn the skin if people sunbathe recklessly and (b) they were thought to be the main culprit in the formation of skin cancer. However, recent research has shown that the UVA spectrum – formerly thought to tan and age the skin but not to cause skin cancer – can trigger cancer and UVB rays – while you still need to be careful with them – indirectly help to protect you by creating vitamin D, which plays a cancer-preventing role. An unintentional but unfortunate result of blocking UVB has been to reduce the amount of vitamin D people make in their skin.
The further you live from the equator, the harder it is to create your own vitamin D. As latitudes rise, UVB rays weaken; the angle of the sun worsens for making vitamin D and cloud cover stops the rays getting through. Add to the pot a sunshine policy based too heavily on the Aussie model (cover up, avoid the sun, wear lots of high SPF sunscreen, etc., while forgetting that there’s lots of sun down under and not so much up here!) and you begin to see how we might suffer from a lack of vitamin D.
Ideally, we should stock up on lots of nice, fat-soluble vitamin D in summer to see us through the winter but in northern Europe, it is hard to get enough vitamin D from sunshine and diet. With the shadow of rickets returning, our winter levels are revealing a potentially dangerous deficiency.
So, what can we do about it?
One way of countering deficiency is to take supplements. First, though, it’s important to get your vitamin D levels tested to determine your current status. Clinical nutritionist and vitamin D researcher Krispin Sullivan says that as a pro-hormone, too much supplementary vitamin D has the potential to harm. She advocates testing, treating (if necessary) and re-testing until you find the right amount to meet your personal daily needs (everyone is different). There are several vitamin D tests on the market but the one you need is vitamin D (D3 (25-OH)). You can order it from your GP. You might want to ask your GP or a qualified nutritionist about testing for other vitamin, mineral and nutrient levels too, as they all work together in the body. If one is out of balance (too much or too little) it can knock the others out of whack.
NB: It is very important to consult with your doctor before taking food supplements, especially if you are on medication. Natural remedies and food supplements can clash with certain medicines.
Supplements need to be chosen carefully, with quality in mind. Once you know how much you need, visit a good health food shop and ask for advice. Vitamin D supplements range from cod liver oil-based supplements to vegan. Some of the best are vegetarian supplements made from the lanolin on sheep’s wool. (Animals and birds make D3 in their fleece, fur or feathers, since sunlight cannot reach their skin. They then eat their own D3 by grooming their coats or rubbing their beaks on their plumage!)
If you are vegan, you might need to search for a vegan D3 supplement. Most vegan vitamin D supplements are vitamin D2. The Vitamin D Council argues that D3 is more suitable for humans than D2, as we make D3 in our skin.
Ultimately, it is the whole package of fresh food, exercise, sunlight and emotional balance that gives us the energy to care for ourselves and our loved ones. Addressing our nutritional needs is a good place to start.
Airline safety messages tell us to put on our own oxygen masks first and only then to help our kids, for we are no use to them unconscious. Likewise, we can only care for others when our own needs are met; otherwise, we are trying to offer them water from an empty well ( written by Rhoda).