What's necessary for human survival, can prevent and treat multiple health issues from heart disease to depression and is absolutely free? The answer is sunlight. "No" I hear you cry, the sun causes cancer and we must all 'slip, slop, slap'. How did something so important for health become public enemy number one?
I have just finished reading 'The Vitamin D Solution' by Dr Holick, who I really respect for his determination, common sense and wholistic take on health and well-being. Although prior to reading Dr Holick's book I believed in sensible sun exposure and the value of vitamin D, I didn't realise quite how many body functions depend on this single super hormone. Although called vitamin D, this is not technically an appropriate name. A vitamin is actually something we obtain from our diets because it cannot be made in our bodies, whereas vitamin D, although possible to obtain from the diet in small amounts, can be synthesised in our skin. Vitamin D also acts like a hormone in the body in respect to its effects on metabolic pathways, cellular function and it's impact on our genes. It's basically in a class of its own, with vitamin D receptors in every part of the body.
Vitamin D deficiency is re emerging as a huge health issue due to our anxiety about the sun. Rickets (a childhood condition causing skeletal abnormalities and lifelong physical effects), often seen as a problem of the past, is increasingly becoming an issue again in the western world, despite our knowledge of its cause. In 1931 it was such a massive health concern that the US government created an agency designed to encourage sun exposure for children, in order to prevent rickets. Then came the fear of cancer, and the baby was very definitely thrown out with the bath water. Now that we have been effectively brainwashed to avoid the sun at all costs, our vitamin D levels are plummeting along with all it's rewards. These include bone, cellular, organ, muscular, autoimmune, brain and mood-related positive health effects. If it was the latest wonder drug you might find it hard to believe such wide spread benefits were possible, so are we seriously meant to believe that sunlight is so miraculous? According to Dr Holick, who has been studying vitamin D for over 30 years, the answer is a resounding scientifically sound YES.
The main fear people have in regards to the sun is skin cancer. Dr Holick argues that there is no substantiated scientific evidence linking MODERATE sun exposure to significantly increased risk of skin cancer. That does not mean it's ok to get burnt or go out unprotected for long periods of time in the middle of the day. And as with all things, what amounts to sensible sun exposure in one person may be excessive or inadequate in another, depending on factors such as skin type, where you live in the world, the season and time of day.
Dr Holick's recommendation in a nutshell is to eat foods rich in vitamin D (such as fish, shiitake mushrooms, egg yolk and fortified foods), use supplementation as a back-up, and most importantly, expose yourself to appropriate amounts of sun. His motto is "estimate, expose, protect". He suggests you estimate how long it takes you to get a mild pinkness on your skin. Then without sunscreen, expose 25% of your body (e.g. your arms and legs) for about 25-50% of that length of time (between 10am and 3pm) 2-3 days per week. After this amount of sun exposure protect yourself with sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer and wrinkles. Vitamin D is fat-soluble so if you get enough in summer it will last you through the winter. Gosh I love Mother Nature; she's so clever.
If you want more detail on how we became sun phobic, the ins and outs of the benefits of vitamin D and how to boost your levels of this amazing hormone, I strongly suggest you lay your hands on a copy of "The Vitamin D Solution", written by M.F. Holick, PhD, MD, and published by Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2010.
May you be full of beans and sunshine,