The Sun Gets A Bad Rap: Vitamin D, My Bones and the Rest of My Body

Toni Hurst Health Guide
  • For the last 30 years, we've been told over and over about the dangers of the sun. Everyone from my husband to my wonderful dermatologist tells me, "Stay out of the sun! You have red hair and freckles!"   


    And I've had my share of sun damage, luckily no melanomas, but close enough. I do have very fair skin, but I also have thinning bones. And one of the BEST things for my bones is vitamin D, created by my body in response to sunlight.


    As we age, especially if we are post-menopausal and we live in the northern part of the United States, we lose three to four percent of our bone mass every winter. But we can get it back in the summer, if we are SMART about using the sun's amazing ability to help our bodies produce vitamin D. A huge percentage of women in climates that get cold in the winter are deficient in vitamin D.

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    What's so special about vitamin D? It helps your bones absorb calcium. You can drink milk and eat yogurt or swallow calcium supplements till the cows come home but if you don't have enough of the hormone vitamin D in your blood, your bones won't absorb the calcium.


    It performs other important functions too. It can lower your blood pressure, slows osteoarthritis, and prevents some cancers. In fact, some researchers think the lack of vitamin D from the sun in northern climates is the reason women who live in the North have higher rates of breast cancer than those who live in the South, where the sun is more available to them. Scientists say it can lift your mood, too. Nice side benefit.


    Can't you just take a vitamin D supplement? Turns out that no, you can't. I mean you CAN, but it doesn't work nearly as well as the sun. The sun is a very efficient way to get your vitamin D. Full body exposure to the sun (and I am NOT advocating that but hey, if you want to, go ahead!) for just 15 minutes is equal to taking 10,000 IU vitamin D. More isn't necessarily better, though. In reality, you're not going to sit naked in the sun for 15 minutes each day, especially when it's cold outside. But you can still get the sun you need and you can have fun doing it.


    You probably know that mid-day is the worst time to expose your skin to the sun. Early morning and late afternoon are best. This time of year, when it's still warm out, try to get out for 30 to 45 minutes four days a week and wear a sleeveless shirt and shorts.


    Go out for a walk or hike, or do your yoga outside. Always wear sunscreen at other times. If your skin burns while you're out, you're over-exposing your skin to the sun and that's dangerous. For someone with light skin like me, a 20 minute walk is all that's needed before I start to turn pink. Before that happens, I've gotten all the vitamin D I need.


    If I can't get out for a short walk, I may put my car window down and put my arm out. If I had a convertible (which I would love but somehow it doesn't seem to be in the cards), I'd drive to work in the morning and home in the evening with the top down. I wouldn't take a long drive with the top down through the hottest or sunniest part of the day.


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    That takes care of summer, but what about winter? Since I live in the north, even skiing or hiking on those sunny winter days (aren't they a gift?) won't give me much sunlight since I will ALWAYS put sunscreen on my face, and the rest of me is covered head to toe.


    So that's when I'll turn to supplements. I've been told I need 800 to 1000 IU a day, and I can get it from liver, cod liver oil and egg yolks. I'll go for the egg yolks, thank you. I'm not a big milk-drinker but even if I were, skim milk is not a good source of vitamin D, since vitamin D is fat-soluble and there is not enough fat in skim milk to mix the vitamin D well with the milk.


    I know what you're going to ask: Have I tried a tanning salon? No, and I won't go that route.  The benefits to mind and body of spending 15 minutes in the sunshine early in the morning are much more attractive than five minutes in a tanning salon. A walk is also cheaper. Plus I'm an outdoor girl and I'm awfully claustrophobic. A tanning bed would be my idea of torture.


    Sure, I still worry about sun damage. But I worry less than I used to since I started learning about vitamin D and the sun. I'm careful, and I've read that antioxidants help prevent skin damage from the sun, so I make sure I get plenty of vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene.


    This is my favorite time of year. Autumn is simply gorgeous in every part of North American where I've had the pleasure of spending time. Now that summer is over and the sun's rays aren't quite as damaging, get out there. Wear a hat for your face of you want but let your shoulders and arms and legs soak up all that great vitamin D! Your bones will thank you for it.


Published On: September 08, 2008