Vitamin D - One More Reason to Get Outdoors

By Coach KB

Vitamin D is the most highly coveted vitamin in the northwest. City-dwellers everywhere from Eugene to Bellingham hit the street in droves at the first sign of a sunny day in March. It’s still only 52 degrees, but women have dug out their sundresses and guys unabashedly walk down the street with their shirts off. Frisbee in the park; hacky-sack on the corner… We are drawn to the sunlight at this time of year like moths to a flame. It would be perfectly reasonable to be fully clothed on these chilly, albeit sunny, early spring days, but I believe we have an innate sense of our own Vitamin D deficiencies. The northwest has been blanketed in a thick layer of clouds since November which puts the sun as the only thing rarer than a non-flanneled hipster. 

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for all humans; unfortunately, suboptimal Vitamin D intake is widespread, especially here in the northern United States where we get only a couple months of good sunlight. This could be having a significant impact on our health. The most widely known benefits of Vitamin D are its importance in calcium absorption and bone metabolism. Rickets, a rare disorder in developed countries now, used to affect children everywhere as pregnant and nursing mothers and their children were kept indoors and out of the sunlight (to “protect” their “weak” constitutions, I’m sure… you know… because women). If you don’t know - and why would you? - Rickets is characterized by a softening and weakening of the bones. But Vitamin D is so much more! A deficiency increases the risk of most types of cancer, multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), hypertension, and heart disease. It has even been linked to arthritis and Alzheimer’s. You don’t want to mess with Vitamin D!

Now that you are properly worried of the implications if you, in fact, are deficient, here are the deets about how much Vitamin D you need and how to get it:

According to a recent review “The Clinical Importance of Vitamin D (Cholecalciferol): A Paradigm Shift with Implications For All Healthcare Providers”, by Drs. Vasquez, Manso and Cannell, the safe and reasonable range to promote optimal health and reduce the risk of several serious diseases is 1,000 IU (International Units)/day for infants, 2,000 IU/day for children, and 4,000 IU/day for adults. That said, the National Institute of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements has put the upper daily limit for Vitamin D at 1,000 IU for infants under 12 months and 2,000 IU for all others. The lower limits set by the NIH might be a good place to start, unless you are directed otherwise by a professional. 

One of the best ways to get adequate Vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight. It’s amazing that we can produce our own vitamins without the need of food or supplement. This probably has to do with our indigenous ancestors that lived primarily outdoor lives with much sun exposure. Unfortunately, we don’t live like those ancestors anymore. At least 70% of our weeks (5 out of 7 days) during at least 75% of the year (9 out of 12 months) probably look something like us going from our home to our car, from our car to our office, from our office to our car, from our car to the gym, from the gym to our car, and from our car to home. We are only adapted to produce our own Vitamin D under the proper circumstances - the circumstances we lived in before we moved to different places on the map and started doing everything indoors. 

Our skin pigmentation adapted based on the sun exposure of the geographical region our ancestors moved - the farther north you were, the lighter your skin pigmentation was to be able to soak in the little sunlight you have. In the northwest it is basically impossible to make Vitamin D during the winter and really, with the way the sun’s rays hit earth we can only produce Vitamin D between 10am and 3pm during the spring, summer, and fall. What are most of you doing on most days between 10am and 3pm??? This has even graver implications for people with darker skin pigmentation, which was designed to protect from the abundance of UV radiation present where their ancestors lived. Now that people of any skin pigmentation can live wherever they want, studies from the USDA have shown that African American women have a Vitamin D status that is 40% lower than Caucasian women (who are already probably deficient!). There also might be a correlation with the fact that the rate of the aforementioned diseases/conditions such as heart disease is higher in the African American population in the United States. 

The balance, of course, is to get enough sun exposure without getting too much. There has been a lot of emphasis over the last couple decades to wear sunscreen at all times. We can’t make Vitamin D if we block the UV rays. We will get skin cancer if we don’t. Balance, people, balance. Get some sun exposure without sunscreen on all the days that you can. Wear sunscreen if there is a risk of burning, especially if you are vacationing in geographic areas where the sun is more intense. 

You can also eat your Vitamin D if you have less than ideal sun exposure, but there aren’t a lot of things that you might commonly eat that give you a lot of it. Great sources are in oily fish (which should only be consumed once a week due to mercury contamination). A 3½ ounce piece of wild-caught salmon contains approximately 360 IU of Vitamin D; mackerel has 340; sardines have 250; and tuna has 200. Free-range organic eggs each have more than 20 IU’s of Vitamin D. Liver contains 15 IU’s of vitamin D, but, like eggs, should only be consumed from an organic and grass fed source in order to get the maximum benefit and avoid toxicity. Unfortunately, whole grains and milk even from organic or grass fed sources does not contain Vitamin D in any significant amounts. Although they might have been fortified with Vitamin D2, the kind produced in the skin and found in whole foods is Vitamin D3. As a supplement, cod liver oil is a rich source of vitamin D3, containing 1,360 IU’s/tablespoon, but you have to be willing to take it despite the taste. 

Bottom line - most of us are likely deficient in Vitamin D. As with all things, speak with a doctor or other qualified health professional for advice. At the very least, get outside every day in the middle of the day starting today to prepare for the winter months. Even if the sun is not shining, the fresh air and brain-break will do you some good. And maybe this winter ladies, keep a sundress or two handy for those rare sunny days. Gentlemen, you can keep your t-shirts wadded up right where they are.