Have you been out in the sun lately? I know, silly question. It’s summer…of course you have! Did you lather yourself up with sunscreen as a way to protect your beautiful skin from the sun’s UV rays? As a guy who previously worked in a position where I oversaw the vitamin and nutritional supplement line, I tend to spend a great deal of time following the literature on this topic…and what’s healthy versus not.
I obviously agree the sun can do tremendous damage (aging and increased risk of skin cancer). But I also think it’s always important to remind folks that when it comes to sunscreen, you should be careful “not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” That same UVB light that accelerates aging and increases cancer risk is also the same light that generates vitamin D.
We have a vitamin D deficiency epidemic in this country. An article published in the 2009 Archives of Internal Medicine found that 77 percent of U.S. adults and adolescents were insufficient in vitamin D (90 percent of Mexican-Americans and 97 percent of all non-Hispanic blacks).
Dr. Ed Giovannucci, a highly respected researcher from Harvard, wrote in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2006 that “Sunlight might prevent 30 deaths for each one caused by skin cancer. I would challenge anyone to find an area or nutrient or any factor that has such consistent anti-cancer benefits as vitamin D. The data are really quite remarkable.”
Of course, then the question comes up of whether physicians prefer their patients get vitamin D through supplementation as opposed to directly from the sun. That really depends on whom, and what type of doctor, you ask. Most of the research indicates there is really very little difference between the two.
Most physicians feel supplements are the most logical choice because of ease, cost, accuracy of dosing, etc. Dermatologists clearly like to steer folks away from the sun. However, a few, including Dr. John Cannell, Founder of the Vitamin D Council, feel the sun is the preferred method since that’s the way we were “designed” to get vitamin D.
Obviously, no one, including Dr. Cannell, recommends getting a sun burn. But, for most folks, 10-15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure seems to be a logical and safe dose. The problem is how often do most people go out in a bathing suit, or shorts and a tank top, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the UVB light is most available? Clearly, if the weather is gloomy and overcast that wouldn’t be practical.
Something else to keep in mind is there is a huge variability in how much vitamin D we synthesize from the sun or absorb from supplements. There clearly is no such thing as “one size fits all.” Cooper Clinic physicians recommend starting with 2000 international units (IU) of vitamin D-3 per day and go up in dose as needed. The ideal method to determine how much vitamin D you need is to get a blood test. But from a practical standpoint, most people aren’t going to take the time or spend the money to do that. 2000 IU per day may not get them to an “optimal” blood level, but for most individuals, it will at least help them avoid “deficiency”… which is less than 20 ng/ml.
Even though I run and ride my bike outside quite a bit, I have found I need to take 5000 IU of Vitamin D-3 per day for me to maintain a blood level of 60 ng/ml (my ideal target). But remember, everyone is different. The main takeaway is to make sure to get your vitamin D…whether it’s from the sun or supplements … just get it.