Vitamin D Drama
A vitamin, by definition, is a nutrient needed in the diet in small amounts for normal function, growth, and maintenance of body tissues. However, there is one vitamin that pushes that definition, one vitamin that won’t be viewed in black and white, one vitamin that refuses to be categorized. That rebellious nutrient is Vitamin D.
Vitamin D, unlike other vitamins, isn’t always essential. Obtaining it in your diet may or may not be necessary. Hmmm…has Vitamin D’s ambiguous nature got you a little puzzled? If so, let me walk you through the details.
You see, your skin cells are capable of forming Vitamin D in the presence of sunlight, or UV light to be more exact. Most people, in the majority of climates, can make all the Vitamin D they need by simply getting sunlight on their face, arms, and hands for about 10-15 minutes, a few days a week, between the hours of 8 AM and 4 PM. However, if you aren’t hanging out in the sun much, or you’re wearing UV blocking sunscreen constantly, then your skin can’t manufacture adequate Vitamin D and you need to get it in your diet. So while dietary Vitamin D intake isn’t essential for many people, those “if” cases have allowed this nutrient to achieve vitamin status. Vitamin D deficiency used to primarily be a problem only in populations that had a sun insufficiency: the elderly, vampires, people living in northern climates where the sun pretty much disappears for months. However, trends seem to indicate that now things may be changing…and not in a good way. But before I get to the latest Vitamin D drama, permit me to tell you why you should care about this particular nutrient.
Vitamin D, like most vitamins, is a multitasker. Its most important function is regulating blood calcium levels and preventing calcium loss but it also aids in immune function, contributes to insulin secretion, and may help ward off cancer. Vitamin D deficiency causes rickets or soft bones- amongst other things. Even if you were so stuffed with calcium that someone could use you as a piece of chalk, all that calcium wouldn’t do your bones much good without Vitamin D. Calcium can’t do its job without Vitamin D to back it up; bone maintenance is a team effort. Go team bones!
You should now understand that vitamin D is important but perhaps you are confused as to why it, a sometimes non-essential nutrient, deserves our attention when there are plenty of always-essential nutrients out there. Let me quell that confusion by sharing Vitamin D’s recent woes – the problems that have lead to increasing deficiencies.
Problem 1: You may have noticed that more and more people have become aware of the harmful nature of UV radiation. It is true UV light causes all sorts of havoc in our skin. You many know that sun exposure can lead to skin cancer but were you also aware that it suppresses your skin’s immune responses, causes a cascade of inflammation, and leads to the formation of free radicals? Oddly, although some people don’t care about the risk of skin cancer and all that other bad stuff they usually do care about being pretty. Sun exposure is one of the leading causes of premature aging. Yes, in this day of youth obsession that point seems to catch everyone’s attention. In fact it has caught so much attention that not only are many women putting SPF lotions on their faces every day but some are slathering on SPF containing body lotions day and night. They are essentially wrapping themselves in a sun proof cocoon. After all, the seconds of sun exposure here and there do add up over a lifetime and can lead to catastrophically normal skin. Gasp! Because of this rise in UV apprehension, and segments of the population avoiding unprotected sun exposure like the plaque, Vitamin D deficiency appears to be increasing.
Problem 2: When I was a kid I spent a lot of time outdoors. I loved playing outside. Most people my age felt similarly about the outdoors when they were children and now those once-kids are already dealing with skin cancer issues because of all the time they spent enjoying the sunny summers in their early years with as few clothes on as possible. My generation may have gotten a few too many sunburns back in those days, and our skin is now paying the price, but did we have Vitamin D deficiency? Absolutely not. Kids today, however, spend a lot less time being lively outside. They are too obsessed with their video games and TV shows to be regularly involved in active outdoor play. The negative effects of this surge in childhood inactivity are far reaching and include: childhood obesity, diabetes, and even heart disease. Vitamin D levels also seem to be dwindling in many kids due to their sedentary indoor lifestyles.
So now you appreciate what poor Vitamin D has been going through but what can be done about its predicament? My solution is very simple and entirely logical…heaven forbid the answer to any dilemma be logical. You see, I am a big fan of moderation and that’s exactly what this situation calls for. Many people bask in the sun, or regularly visit tanning beds, with little thought to the long-term consequences… and there will be consequences. Those consequences may come in the form of sunburns, wrinkles, a suppressed immune system, sagging skin, age spots, or skin cancer. Why tanners why? If you are burning yourself in order to be hip you should know that tan skin is on its way out! That’s right, pale even-toned skin is making a comeback! (Yes! I am going to have the trendiest skin around!) And even if tan skin continues to be popular, (It really is becoming less and less so…I would never lie to you.) is looking sun baked really worth the health of your skin? Also, if you are that concerned about appearances shouldn’t you be concerned about what your skin is going to look like in 20 or 30 years thanks to all the tanning you are doing now? Put some sunscreen on people! By the way, the sunless tanners they have these days are quite good; they don’t make you look like an oversized pumpkin. Ever considered using those instead of frying your skin? Just a thought.
And to all you people that fear the sun as if it were an evil overlord hovering above you…chill! You need some beams! Ten minutes a day isn’t going to kill you, in fact not getting any is much more likely to do so. And you aren’t going to turn into a hag if you get a few rays now and then, at least not any more so than is unfortunately unavoidable through the passing of time.
And parents, you know where the “off” switch is on your TV or kids’ gaming system right? Well, then why don’t you use it? Send you children outside to run around and play. Even if this takes a bit of work, it could save your kids from a long list of chronic health problems and sickly lives. (I know, I know, it’s not fair; you didn’t expect parenting to actually take effort.) By the way, don’t forget your kids do need sunscreen when being out in the sun for extended periods of time. You wouldn’t want their backs to be littered with precancerous cells when they’re only 30 would you? I thought not.
So to review: Lots of sun=bad. No sun or constantly SPFing your whole body=bad. Ten minutes of sunscreenless sun a few days a week=good.
And let me just say to those of you that are bound and determined to keep every inch of your skin covered from the sun and wear a thick layer of SPF 500 sunscreen day and night despite my plea for moderation and rationality- there is still a glimmer of hope for your bones. If you won’t soak in your Vitamin D you can still eat it. Good sources of Vitamin D include: fatty fish, fortified milk, and some breakfast cereals. So make sure you get plenty of those in your diet or your beautifully pale and well-kept skin could be stretched over a large osteoporotic hump. (That’s usually not considered attractive.)
I should also warn you sun avoiders that while sunlight and food sourced Vitamin D will not cause toxicity, such is not the case for Vitamin D supplements. If you seek to improve your Vitamin D status through supplementation you should be careful not to overdo it. Vitamin D is fat soluble, builds up in your fat tissue, and can be extremely toxic. A normal adult would have to take about 10 times the AI (Adequate Intake) of Vitamin D for approximately 6 months before toxicity would set in. (For an infant the amount of Vitamin D that will cause toxicity is far less.) You may be thinking that six months is oodles of time and that toxicity therefore isn’t an issue but you might change your tune when your body starts going berserk and depositing calcium in random places like your kidneys, heart, blood vessels…organs don’t tend to recover from something like that too well.
So go easy on the Vitamin D supplements, enjoy some fish, and hang out with your fiery friend the sun occasionally. A few short visits with him every week will take quite a bit of the Vitamin D drama out of your life.