Most people in the modern world have lifestyles that prevent them from acquiring the levels of vitamin D that evolution intended us to have. The sun’s ultraviolet-B rays absorbed through the skin are the body’s main source of this nutrient. Early humans evolved near the equator, where sun exposure is intense year round, and minimally clothed people and spent most of the day outdoors.
“As a species, we do not get as much sun exposure as we used to, and dietary sources of vitamin D are minimal,” Dr. Edward Giovannucci, nutrition researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, explains in The Archives of Internal Medicine.
In the past few years, numerous studies have shown that optimizing your vitamin D levels may actually help prevent as many as 16 different types of cancer including pancreatic, lung, breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancers. There is even evidence that Vitamin D protects against colds, flu and viral infections. Yet despite our knowledge of the benefits of Vitamin D, we live in a culture that has grown to demonize the sun, and hence are facing the consequences of an increase in Vitamin D deficiency. Instead we should embrace our relationship to the sun through safe, smart and limited sunscreen-free exposure to its rays of light.
Like all living things, we need the sun. For millions of years, humans have spent many hours out in the sun each day without the protection of sunscreen. As such, it seems completely backwards for this natural and essential part of life to be solely considered as dangerous. In the same way that plants harness the sun's rays through photosynthesis, our bodies use sunlight to help the skin produce the vitamin D it needs to build bones, bolster the immune system and even protect against cancer (including skin cancer).
Both Industrialization and the villication of the sun have greatly contributed to widespread vitamin D deficiency. Whereas humans used to spend many hours outside every day working in fields, on farms, and (pre-agricultural revolution) hunting and foraging for food; modern humans in industrialized nations work and recreate mostly indoors. Technology has cast a system in which we spend most of our times commuting in vehicles to work in either offices or enclosed spaces, then spending our leisure time either in shopping malls, movie theaters, bars, restaurants, or in our own homes in front of our preferred choice of screens.
Today, we live in a society in which Western medicine has started an alarmist trend of warning us to abstain from things that are bad for us: fat, carbohydrates, salt and even sunshine when in fact these are things are essential for our well-being when consumed wisely and in moderation. In the case of sunshine, our UV paranoia is contributing to a silent epidemic: Vitamin D deficiency. It's silent because most people don't know they are deficient. And it's deadly, because this deficiency can lead to cancer and a multitude of other diseases (not to mention pale and rather startlingly translucent ghosts in empty sockets).
Studies show that as many as three out of four Americans suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. A study published in 2009 in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 70 percent of Caucasians, 90 percent of Hispanics and 97 percent of African Americans in the US have insufficient blood levels of vitamin D. Traditionally, vitamin D has been viewed by researchers and physicians as functioning mainly to maintain bone density and prevent bone loss. Bone-softening diseases that have been attributed to vitamin D deficiency include osteomalacia, osteopenia, and osteoporosis in adult patients. While it is true that vitamin D plays a significant role in bone health, emerging research suggests that its presence or absence also contributes to the overall health of other body systems, including the immune system, the autoimmune system, the cardiovascular system, and the integumentary system. Yet because the signs and symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are insidious or nonspecific, it often goes unrecognized and untreated.”
Vitamin D deficiency can also lead to other conditions such as “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD) and insomnia. SAD is a situational mood disorder brought on by diminishing daylight in the fall and winter months. High doses of vitamin D during these months have proven to be a very effective natural remedy for SAD, leading most practitioners to believe that normal neurotransmitter function depends in part on adequate vitamin D synthesis. Vitamin D levels are inversely related to those of melatonin, a mood-regulating hormone. Melatonin helps temper your circadian rhythms, with darkness triggering melatonin secretion by the pineal gland within your brain, helping to promote a healthy night’s sleep. Melatonin influences insomnia, mood swings and even food cravings. Sunlight shuts melatonin production off, while triggering release of vitamin D — that’s why doctors recommend getting outdoors as a remedy for jet lag.
But whatever you do, please don't get over excited and overcook yourselves! You can get sunburned during any time of year, not just over the summer months. If you are heading out to soak up some early rays, protect your skin with a light sunscreen, like SPF 15 or at least wear a hat or head scarf -- especially if you are fair skinned, bald or burn easily! Otherwise, exposing yourself to too much sun can lead you down the road to skin cancer and ultimately, death.