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When sunshine on your shoulders makes you happy and healthy

You can dramatically improve your daily quality of life by staying on top of your Vitamin D. Here is what you need to do.

Sunshine is one way of getting in enough Vitamin D
Sunshine is one way of getting in enough Vitamin D (Unsplash)

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You said yours was 15ng/mL? Well, mine is six ng/mL.

Move over those discussions about how much you weigh, how little you eat or how you never gain weight, despite the vast quantities of food you tuck away. The latest health parameter to be bandied about is this — the plummeting levels of Vitamin D in your body. Discovering how low your vitamin D levels seems to have become the ultimate form of competition amongst friends. As alluring as winning is, don't let exhaustion cripple you before you get yourself tested. You can dramatically improve your daily quality of life by staying on top of your Vitamin D.

Despite being a tropical country, India has a high prevalence of vitamin D deficiencies. According to a research study titled Vitamin D Deficiency in India, published in the Journal of Family Medicine, and Primary Care, it affects 70-100% of the population. Despite India being a beautiful, sunshine-drenched country, the heat can inhibit outdoor sun exposure. At the same time, darker skin tones can block the absorption of Vitamin D. Looking at these statistics, and it's no surprise that scientists consider Vitamin D deficiency to be the most under-diagnosed and underrated nutritional deficiency in the world.

Also read: Can you build muscle on a plant-based diet?

Vitamin D is interesting because it's not a proper "vitamin" in the sense we don't need to get it from our food sources. Our body can make its own Vitamin D if exposed to sunlight. Believe it or not, your skin is incredibly intuitive when it comes to topping us up with vitamin D; it works like a phone charger. If you get adequate amounts of vitamin D through the sun, you stop absorbing it, much like your phone won't charge past 100%.

However, obtaining Vitamin D from the sun may be more complicated than it sounds. You can't just hang an arm out a car window or read a book by a window on a sunny day. Your skin requires at least 20 minutes of direct sunlight. Vitamin D absorption relies on the angle of the sunlight - so prime time in the sun is between the hours of 10 am - 2 pm, which happens to be the hottest time on an Indian day! On top of this inconvenient sun exposure time, our Vitamin D absorption can be inhibited by numerous factors.

 1. Season — time of year matters

 2. Skin pigmentation — darker skin tones have a more difficult time absorbing Vitamin D

 3. Clothing — the more your clothing covers, the less exposure

4. Sunscreen — although necessary for decreasing your chances of cancer, it reduces your Vitamin D absorption

5. Age — you absorb less as you get older

6. High-fat levels — decrease the amount of Vitamin D available to your body

7. Pollution — can block the sun's rays and window pane glass

When the sun isn't enough

Relying on the sun alone for Vitamin D is a little daunting because prolonged, unprotected exposure to the sun also increases our risk for skin cancers. Having said that, you cannot avoid ensuring you get enough of it since having low Vitamin D levels not only impacts your daily quality of life but also damages your body in the long term.

According to the Patient Info website, low vitamin D levels predominantly make you feel tired and achy. And perhaps, as we age, feeling tired and achy seems like a commonplace rather than a unique symptom of a vitamin deficiency; vitamin D deficiencies go unnoticed and unreported. However, as it has a role in protecting our bone, teeth, and muscle health by working with calcium, and letting our Vitamin D levels go unchecked may contribute to a much bigger problem. According to the National Health Service, severe chronic Vitamin D deficiency can lead to in children (soft bones cause developmental deformities) and osteomalacia in adults.

So what are our choices?

Food is a poor source of Vitamin D and is only found in limited sources. According to the National Institute of Health, the best sources of Vitamin D are from the skin of some fatty fish, such as mackerel, trout, salmon, and tuna. Alternatively, meat products, such as beef liver, egg yolks, and cheese, also have a small amount. Plant-based sources such as mushrooms include Vitamin D-2. Other food products such as milk and dairy products, such as cheese and margarine, and plant-based dairy alternatives can be fortified with vitamin D. However, fortification is limited and won't cover our entire daily requirement of Vitamin D.

For all of these reasons, the use of supplementation for Vitamin D deficiency is widespread. Before supplementing any form of nutrition, talk to your primary care physician for a blood test to ensure that you are a candidate. As I mentioned before, Vitamin D derived from sunlight has a strong feedback mechanism to ensure that we don't store toxic levels in our bodies. However, when ingesting Vitamin D, there is a chance that hyper-dosing can toxify the body with excess amounts. If you have too much Vitamin D, you may experience nausea/vomiting, elevated blood calcium levels, loss of appetite, excessive thirst, and more.

Supplementing Vitamin D in the hopes of " boosting" our immune systems became a hot topic during Covid-19 because of the link between our immunity and vitamin D levels. Some observational studies showed that those with lower vitamin D levels suffered from Covid-19 at a higher rate. However, according to the article Vitamin D: What's new a year on from the Covid-19 outbreak, published in the 2021 Nutrition Bulletin, this may not be the entire story. It claims that despite the EU listing vitamin D as an integral part of a healthy immune system, it's short-sighted to assume that supplementing vitamin D will improve immune function. Doing so dismisses the complexity of the immune system and all its moving parts.

Balancing it out

So how do you know if you're deficient in Vitamin D? If you want to check if you're lacking in Vitamin D, a simple blood test provided by your doctor will give you all the insight you need. It will measure levels using an "ng/mL" value. The National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements says under 12 ng/mL is a vitamin deficiency, 12-20 ng/mL as inadequate levels, and over 20 is considered adequate. Over 50 ng/mL may have adverse side effects. This shows us that you'll experience unpleasant side effects with both deficiency and excess Vitamin D in your system, so striking a balance in the middle is critical.

Also read: When you gain weight after working out

We can balance this number by ensuring we don't rely solely on one solution, such as only taking supplementation. If we are going to get technical, our bodies must transform Vitamin D into something useable. The substance is called 25-hydroxyvitamin D and can be made from sun, food, and supplements. According to the National Institute of Health, 25-hydroxyvitamin D has a half-life of 15 days, which is how long it takes for the amount in your body to decrease by half. Knowing this, we should be in good standing by continually trying to get some vitamin D in our diets and daily living.

According to Examine, the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin D is set at 400-800 IU/day. Still, this amount may be too little for many people. They suggest moderate supplementation levels at 1,000-2000 IU to meet the population's needs. Whatever your chosen method of Vitamin D supplementation may be - sun, food, or supplements, it's an opportunity to get outside and enjoy a moderate amount of sun each day. Dust off your bikes, roller blades, running shoes, or swimming trunks and experiment with small amounts of sun exposure each day to make exercise fun again!

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach


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