Falling back into daylight savings in the Fall means a lot of things — the holidays are right around the corner, it’s officially cold weather season and if you’re anything like me, it’ll be four months before you make it home from before dark again.
Some people enjoy winter, some people don’t. But did you know that not getting enough exposure to sunlight can actually be detrimental to your health?
It sounds crazy, since scientist and health companies have brandished us with anti-sun messages for the past several years, warning of the dangers of moles, melanomas, faulty sunscreens and tanning beds. While all those messages are still true, there’s another end of the spectrum that isn’t mentioned as frequently.
So Why Do I Need Sunshine?
Sunshine is an essential source of vitamin D. Most vitamins that humans need they absorb through their diet and vitamin D is no exception to this rule. However, what makes vitamin D different is the fact that we can also absorb it through our skin. Scientists have identified over 1000 different genes throughout the body that depend on vitamin D to function properly–it is essential to everything from absorbing calcium in the gut to building strong bones. All this to say that vitamin D deficiency can be a serious medical issue. Vitamin D deficiency doesn’t always present symptoms, but those who are not getting enough of the vitamin may feel tired or generally achy. People with darker skin color are also more likely to experience vitamin D deficiency.
According to the United States National Library of Medicine and National Institutes for Health, scientist first began noticing the importance of sunshine in the nineteenth century. Europeans adhered to the fashions of the day by wearing clothing from head to feet — not only to protect them from the elements of the cold, but also to show status. However, in direct correlation with that, children of the age began developing rickets. Rickets is a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency that causes soft bones and in some cases, skeletal deformities. A classic symptom of the disease is bowed legs.
“By the late 1800s, approximately 90% of all children living in industrialized Europe and North America had some manifestations of the disease, according to estimates based on autopsy studies of the day cited by Holick in the August 2006 Journal of Clinical Investigation and the October 2007 American Journal of Public Health,” an article published by the the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes for Health titlled “Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health” said.
In that same article, the author discusses the reasoning behind why vitamin D deficiency is more common in those with darker skin.
“In the July 2000 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, California Academy of Sciences anthropologists Nina Jablonski and George Chaplin wrote that because dark skin requires about five to six times more solar exposure than pale skin for equivalent vitamin D photosynthesis, and because the intensity of UVB radiation declines with increasing latitude, one could surmise that skin lightening was an evolutionary adaptation that allowed for optimal survival in low-UVR climes, assuming a traditional diet and outdoor lifestyle.”
Another classic disease that responded strongly to treatment involved sunlight during this time period was tuberculosis, leading many doctors to recommend sunbathing to rickets and TB patients. However, when you fast forward to the twentieth and 21st century, scientists changed their tunes. Now, most doctors recommend very limited sunlight exposure, daily sunscreen use even in the winter and hats and glasses to protect your face while you’re outside.
So where’s the happy medium? In truth, excessive exposure to the sun is bad for you. It can cause everything from premature wrinkles to deadly melanoma cancers. This is to say nothing of the dangers of tanning beds. But, with the outpouring of public concern about protecting ourselves from skin cancer, it’s important to remember that while you should protect yourself from the sun, vitamin D from sunlight is essential to human health. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to not only rickets, but certain types of cancer and hypertension.
Dark-skinned people are not the only ones at risk for vitamin D deficiency. Pregnant women, obese people, older people, homebound people, people who work night shifts, people who do not expose their skin in public for religious reasons and people who live extremely North of the equator are also at a greater risk. Studies also suggest that breastfed babies may be at a risk for a vitamin D deficiency.
So How Much Sun Do I Need?
There are conflicting accounts for how much sunlight is recommended by modern day scientists and doctors. A lot of their recommendations differ from person to person and are based on different factors such as the tone of your skin and what part of the world you live in. For example, an extremely fair-skinned person living closer to the equator would get their fill of vitamin D very quickly and would need to spend a very minimal amount of time in the sun and always with lots of good quality sunscreen, protective clothing and a hat. However, a darker skinned individual living further north would need more sun exposure in order to obtain the amounts of vitamin D they needed for their bodily functions.
During the winter, it may become harder to get exposure to sunlight, but the good news is that if you are at risk for vitamin D deficiency because of any of the factors listed above, or if you’re just like me and work till dark each day, there are steps you can take to make sure you are getting enough vitamin D in your system.
Your doctor can do a vitamin D test to determine if you need to incorporate a vitamin D supplement into your diet each day. You can also set aside a period of time each day, whether it’s during your lunch hour or before you go to work to stand outside for ten to fifteen minutes.