Ever wondered why, as a kid, you were always encouraged to go out and play in the sunshine? Ever wondered why even adults are encouraged to go out and enjoy the daily sun? Natural tans and fun aside, the sunshine is responsible for helping your body produce one of 24 essential nutrients that it needs – vitamin D!
Most of us are no strangers to this vitamin, having definitely been introduced to it by a parent or teacher – most probably both! But what makes this vitamin so well known and important?
The “Low-Down” on D!
Often called the “sunny” or “sunshine” vitamin, vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin (along with A, E and K) which means that it dissolves in the fat/oil in your body and hence can be stored for a long time. What sets vitamin D apart, however, is that it is actually a steroid hormone produced by your body when the ultraviolet rays from the sun strike your skin and induce vitamin D synthesis.
How Does Vitamin D Work?
Given that vitamin D is a neuroregulatory steroid hormone, it works pretty much like other steroid hormones. Ineffective in its original form, vitamin D needs to go through a two-step conversion process for your body to be able to use it. First, vitamin D is converted to calcidiol in the liver, the form in which it can be stored. This calcidiol is then converted to calcitriol when needed, which is the active form of vitamin D. This form travels around your body, binding to the vitamin D receptors present in almost all your cells, which then allows it to start working its magic!
Is Sunshine the Only Source of Vitamin D?
Well, not really. Some foods such as fatty fish and mushrooms contain vitamin D. But is sunshine the best source of vitamin D? Absolutely! Sunshine provides vital energy to the production of vitamin D. No food can ever come close to providing you with the same amount of vitamin D as sunshine can! Yes, we’re well aware that current lifestyles dictate closed transport to keep out the pollution and copious amounts of sunscreen to protect against skin cancer, but there’s really no two ways about this one, guys. You need that old-fashioned walk in the sunlight to get your dose of vitamin D! And remember, there’s no use only exposing your hands and face. A larger surface area is required, so don those swimming trunks, pull out the blanket and sunbathe a few times a week without the sunscreen and shades!
But what about the skin cancer risk, you ask? Well, that’s a valid question, but let’s look at it this way. Not getting enough vitamin D could result in various other diseases which are just as unpleasant in the long term. Lay off the sunscreen for the first few minutes (10 – 20 minutes, depending on your skin’s sensitivity to sun burns) of your sunbathing session and then slather some on. Luckily for all of us, vitamin D can be stored for a long time, so if you get sufficient vitamin D in one sitting, you can go a while without the sun exposure.
What Makes Vitamin D So Vital?
Vitamin D has a range of health benefits which has made it a mainstream star in the last few decades. Some of its benefits include:
- Bone Health: This one’s common knowledge. Vitamin D is absolutely essential to your bone health as it increases the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, two highly important nutrients for strong bones. This means that you are less susceptible to bone injuries like fractures, if there is sufficient vitamin D in your bones. Vitamin D is also particularly helpful to the elderly, helping to keep away osteoporosis and heal fractures much faster.
- Increase Physical Strength: Studies show that vitamin D can increase muscle strength in both your upper and lower body, for adults and the elderly alike.
- Improve Heart Health: Like many other vitamins, vitamin D is also a very good friend to your heart. People with lesser than 15 nanograms of vitamin D per milliliter are 153% more likely to develop heart disease. Vitamin D reduces the likelihood of heart attacks and keeps your heart healthy!
- Reduces the Risk of Diabetes: Sufficient vitamin D can help reduce the risk of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes by reducing insulin resistance and enhancing insulin production. In some cases, vitamin D also helped control blood sugar levels for type 2 diabetics.
- May Help Keep Away Depression: That’s right, vitamin D may be able to help you beat away the blues that depression and its symptoms bring on. After all, she wasn’t called “Little Miss Sunshine” for nothing, was she? Low vitamin D levels may result in the increase of depression by 131%! Though the role of the vitamin in keeping away depression is still not fully understood or proven, there’s an undeniable joy in feeling the sun on your face, isn’t there?
- Reduces the Risk of Premature Death: It’s true! Studies have found that adequate vitamin D can help you live longer, maybe due to the overall healthiness that vitamin D provides. Either way, no one wants to die early, do they? So level up the vitamin D intake!
Along with these benefits, vitamin D is also said to help prevent certain types of cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, age-related mental decline, asthma, common cold and chronic pain, though much of it is still being researched.
And What If I Don’t Get Enough Vitamin D?
Vitamin deficiency is unbelievably common, given the lifestyles that we lead and sometimes the places we live in (Can’t exactly get sufficient sunshine in the Arctic countries, can we?). In fact, a decade ago, 41.6% of the American population was vitamin D deficient! A lack of sufficient vitamin D can result in brittle bones, increased risk of osteoporosis, muscle weakness, seizures and fatigue.
If you live in a country where sun shines literally once a blue moon, supplements are important. Vitamin D2 and D3 supplements are highly popular. However, sometimes, supplements can’t replace the real thing, so go out and make the most of the real thing when the weather and climate allow it!
Can I “OD” on the D?
Overdosing on vitamin D is highly rare with natural sunlight and diet, but possible if you’re taking too many supplements over a long period of time. This can result in heart arrhythmia, anorexia, weight loss and damage to the heart and kidneys.
So how much is too much? Well, the amount of vitamin D required by your body increases with your age as the skin’s capacity to absorb ultraviolet rays decreases. However, the Office of Dietary Supplements of the United States Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults between the ages of 17 and 70 get 600 IU of vitamin D, while those older than 70 get 800 IU.
The Final Word
It’s important to remember that most vitamins don’t work in isolation, so be sure to supplement your vitamin D intake with adequate intake of vitamins A, K and magnesium to ensure maximum healthiness.
Well, what are you waiting for? Don’t sit glued to your monitor in your room where the “sun don’t shine”! Go out and enjoy the sunshine while it lasts, and stay healthy and happy while you’re at it!