An increasing emphasis on the hazardous effects of the sun or more specifically, the UV rays of the sun in the last couple of decades has shifted our attention from the beneficial effects of the sun: the ‘Sun Vitamin’ or Vitamin D. Deficiency in Vitamin D has been a persistent problem since a very long time, a situation that strongly contradicts all the medical advances the world has seen, with over a billion people worldwide suffering from this condition.
Vitamin D, also described as “the Sun Vitamin” is a steroid with hormone like activity. It regulates the functions of over 200 genes and is essential for growth and development. It helps ensure that the body absorbs and retains calcium and phosphorus, both critical for building bone. Laboratory studies show that vitamin D can reduce cancer cell growth and plays a critical role in controlling infections.
Why so many people are at risk of Vitamin D deficiency
Exposure to sunshine each day helps the human body to manufacture the required amount of vitamin D. To prevent deficiency, one should spend 15 to 20 minutes daily in the sunshine with 40% of the skin surface exposed. However, due to fear of developing skin cancer and to avoid other damaging effects of the sun on the skin, most people avoid sun exposure. High concentration of melanin in the skin also slows the production of vitamin D; similarly aging greatly reduces skin production of vitamin D. Use of sunblock, common window glass in homes or cars and clothing, all effectively block UVB radiation – even in the summer. People who work indoors, wear extensive clothing, regularly use sunblock, are dark skinned, obese, aged or consciously avoid the sun, are at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
This major public health problem affects individuals across all life stages, especially pregnant women, neonates, infants, children and the elderly. Vitamin D3 deficiency can result in obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, osteoporosis and neuro – degenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease. Being “D-deficient” may even contribute to the development of cancers, especially breast, prostate, and colon cancers, as well as infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and even the seasonal flu. Indeed, in industrialized countries, doctors are even seeing the resurgence of rickets, the bone-weakening disease that had been largely eradicated through vitamin D fortification.
Current research indicates vitamin D deficiency plays a role in causing seventeen varieties of different cancers as well as heart disease, stroke, autoimmune diseases, birth defects, and periodontal disease.
How to ensure proper intake of Vitamin D
Vitamin D is both a nutrient we eat and a hormone our bodies make. Its status depends on the production of vitamin D 3 in the skin under the influence of ultraviolet radiation from sun and vitamin D intake through diet or vitamin D supplements. Usually 50 to 90% of vitamin D is produced by sunshine exposure of skin and the remainder comes from the diet. Natural diet, most human consume, contain little vitamin D. Traditionally the human vitamin D system begins in the skin, not in the mouth.
However, important sources of vitamin D are egg yolk, fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, fortified dairy products and beef liver.
Long term strategies to address this deficiency problem should include public education, national health policies for screening and prevention through food fortification, and treatment with vitamin D supplementation.
With respect to preserving many aspects of our health, it is like poet and writer Walt Whitman had once said, “Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and shadows will fall behind you.”