Most people need a little sun, experts say
January 26, 2004
The Daily Camera
Nonny Dyer worships the sun.
During her years as a river raft guide she spent her days basking in it, and when a career change and motherhood moved her indoors more, she sorely missed it.
"Depression hit big time," says Dyer, 45.
So for the past three years, she has made a point of catching a few rays on sunny days and visiting a tanning spa weekly during the darker months, not so much to enhance her appearance but to feel better inside.
"I don't know why, but it always just makes me feel better."
She may be on to something.
At a time when fear of wrinkles and skin cancer has many people slathering on sunscreen and avoiding UV rays at all costs, a growing body of evidence is suggesting that Vitamin D — a hormone produced primarily through exposure to sunlight — is more critical to health than once believed:
In November, the National Institutes of Health convened a group of scientists for a conference "Vitamin D and Health in the 21st Century," aimed at exploring a troubling re-emergence of health problems, such as rickets, related to Vitamin D deficiency. Scientists there credited the "alarming prevalence" of Vitamin D deficiency in the U.S. population today mainly to weight-conscious or lactose-intolerant Americans avoiding dairy products, and those worried about skin cancer avoiding the sun.
Last month A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a diet rich in vitamin D protected people from developing potentially cancerous growths in the colon.
On Jan. 13 the journal Neurology found that women who took vitamin D supplements were 40 percent less likely to develop multiple sclerosis.
And a number of other recent studies have linked lack of Vitamin D, or regular sunlight, to greater risk for high blood pressure, certain kinds of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Type 1 Diabetes, and depression.
Such news is no surprise to Dyer, who has been diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depression often linked to Vitamin D deficiency.
"Sun raises my mood. It has all my life," she says.
But the news does have health professionals taking a closer look at a vitamin long taken for granted. Some local nutritionists are upping their recommendations for daily Vitamin D intake, and pushing supplements. Other health professionals — to the dismay of skin cancer specialists — are reversing conventional wisdom and advising people to get more sun.
Let the sun shine in
"There is a sun phobia out there," says Dr. Michael Hol-ick, a professor of medicine who heads up the Vitamin D Laboratory at Boston University. His new book, "The UV Advantage," is set to hit the shelves in a few months.
"It is now recommended that you should never be exposed to direct sunlight. That is a radical and unhealthy position to take."
Holick points out that more than 90 percent of a person's Vitamin D comes from exposure to the sun's UVB rays. When sun hits the skin it sets off a complex physiological process that produces the hormone, which then boosts the body's ability to absorb calcium and, thus, build strong bones. Holick, who has studied Vitamin D for decades, believes it does much more than that, playing a vital role in preventing cells from becoming cancerous. And it doesn't take long for the body to make it.
"We are not talking about baking in the sun," Holick says. "We are talking about 10 minutes in the sun a few times a week without sunscreen."
History has already shown the consequences of vitamin D depletion.
During the Industrial Revolution, children who lived in sunless narrow alleyways began to develop rickets, a widening of the ends of the long bones and bowing and bending of the legs which led to severe growth retardation. The U.S. government addressed the problem by fortifying milk and an array of other dairy products with Vitamin D, and the problem seemed to go away.
"The attitude has always been that we had dealt with the issue," says Dan Raiten, PhD., a health scientist with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which helped host the fall conference. "We now have a confluence of a number of well intentioned policies that are converging to create a possible re-emergence of the problem."
One survey presented at the conference found that 41 percent of African American women age 15 to 49 are vitamin D deficient. Another found that 36 percent of medical personnel aged 18-29 are Vitamin D deficient.
Raiten says one major concern is that mothers who are exclusively nursing their young babies, keeping them out of the sun entirely, and not getting enough Vitamin D themselves (thus not passing it through their breast milk) may be putting their infants at risk of rickets and other problems.
Many pediatricians now advise nursing mothers to take Vitamin D supplements.
"When you put exclusive breastfeeding and no exposure to sunlight together, you end up with a situation when there is no source of Vitamin D," Raiten says.
Lynn Smith, a registered dietitian from Boulder, says Coloradoans are lucky, in that they live in a uniquely sunny state. She rarely sees overt signs that a person is Vitamin D deficient.
But as more studies come in suggesting it may have an impact on future health, she is paying more attention to her client's Vitamin D intake nonetheless.
She has upped her recommendation of how much Vitamin D people should get, particularly if they are menopausal, depressed, or elderly. Elderly people do not process or metabolize vitamin D as efficiently, and tend to not get outside as much.
"They need twice the sun exposure and a lot of seniors are not necessarily going to get that," she says.
Eileen Faughey, of Nutrition Connections in Boulder, agrees.
She says Vitamin D is particularly hard to get from food — its found oily fish, egg whites, and cod liver oil — so people have to pay close attention to getting it from other places.
Her advice to her clients: Take a supplement, and get a little sun:
"There might be this silent epidemic occurring where the symptoms aren't
immediately obvious, but there could be long term consequences."
© Copyright 2004, The Daily Camera