The most surprising prescription I’ve been given by a doctor wasn’t something I could pick up at my local pharmacy. Instead, she told me to get out in the sun more — and go easy on the sunscreen. The advice from my doctor came when a blood test revealed I had a vitamin D deficiency.
As someone who has been a devoted sunscreen user for years, this sounded as nonsensical as being told to take up smoking or eat more deep-fried foods.
It has long been established that exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) increases your risk of skin cancer and causes signs of premature aging. I wear a moisturizer with an SPF of 15-30 every day to prevent skin cancer, sun spots and wrinkles. (Health is a top priority, but vanity is another great motivator.)
How Much is Enough D?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin found in some, but not many, foods. The National Institutes of Health recommends 600 IUs (international units) of vitamin D for adults 19-70. The trouble with getting D from your diet is that it’s found in limited quantities.
For some perspective on amounts of vitamin D in foods, one cup of fortified milk has 115-124 IUs and 3 oz. of salmon has 447 IUs. The best food sources of vitamin D are fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines. Egg yolks, cheese and mushrooms also contain small amounts, and some milk, cereals, cheeses and yogurts are also fortified with vitamin D.
You can also get vitamin D from supplements.
Alternatively (this is where my doctor’s advice comes in), your body can naturally synthesize vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun, without sunscreen or windows to block the rays. According to the Natural Institute of Health, most people get enough D from regular sun exposure.
Why You Need Plenty of D
Those of us who wear sunscreen regularly are at risk for a vitamin D deficiency, but it’s important to take steps to maintain the recommended levels, as the role of vitamin D is not to be dismissed.
Let’s begin with bones. The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium, which is essential to maintaining bone health. If your body doesn’t have enough vitamin D, it cannot absorb calcium and you can develop osteomalacia, a condition which causes bone pain and muscle weakness. A calcium deficiency also puts you at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis, a disease that weakens the bones. Each of us naturally loses bone mass as we age, which is why it’s critical that we get enough vitamin D and calcium.
Vitamin D has other vital roles in maintaining overall health: it helps our immune system fight off bacteria and viruses, and works to make sure muscles and nerves function properly.
Though not yet conclusive, recent studies have also been conducted on vitamin D’s role in preventing cancer and other diseases and conditions.
Getting Back the D
Just as my doctor prescribed, I am now trying to spend 10-20 minutes of unfiltered sunlight several days a week — not long enough to get burned, but long enough for the body to produce vitamin D. (Lucky for me, living in Southern California makes this possible year-round.) Of course, those especially at risk for skin cancer need to take greater care in protecting themselves and no doctor will carelessly recommend that people get too much sun exposure.
I’m also taking a daily vitamin D supplement and taking care to add more fatty fish to my diet.
You never have to twist my arm to go out for sushi. These days I’m also making my tried-and-true favorite of tuna and capers with pasta weekly (penne with fresh or canned tuna, a handful of capers, tossed with fresh lemon juice and olive oil). Plus I’ve added these vitamin D-packed recipes below to my repertoire.
If any of you have successfully boosted your vitamin D levels after being diagnosed with a deficiency, I’d love to hear your suggestions as well. Leave me a comment below.