Sunbathing and tanning often get a bad rap in our society, but mounting evidence is revealing that moderate sun exposure at healthy levels is not only safe, but necessary. While burning and extreme sun exposure can lead to a slightly increased cancer risk, vitamin D (obtained from sun exposure) has been linked to a lower risk of many other cancers.
Vitamin D Important for Disease Prevention
In many cases we (sometimes literally) cut off our noses to spite our face when it comes to the sun. One study at the Oslo University Hospital in Norway found that the benefits of sun exposure far surpassed any risk:
It can be estimated that increased sun exposure to the Norwegian population might at worst result in 200-300 more CMM deaths per year, but it would elevate the vitamin D status by about 25 nmol/l (nanomoles per liter) and might result in 4,000 fewer internal cancers and about 3,000 fewer cancer deaths overall.
Other studies have found links between low-vitamin D levels and Parkinson’s Disease, bone disease, blood clots, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. A recent study even found that regular sun exposure helped women to live longer. Yet another study found that regular sun exposure could cut breast cancer risk in half!
Vitamin D during Pregnancy and Nursing
Vitamin D is essential during pregnancy and nursing as adequate blood levels of vitamin D have been linked to lower premature labor and overall complication risk. Low vitamin D levels can put a mom at higher risk for gestational diabetes and can lead to bone or other problems for the baby. Another recent study found that pregnant women should get more sun to increase several health markers for themselves and their babies.
This article from the Vitamin D council details the many ways that vitamin D supports a healthy pregnancy, including:
Dr. Joyce Lee and her colleagues at the University of Michigan studied 40 pregnant women, the majority taking prenatal vitamins. Only two had blood levels >50 ng/mL and only three had levels >40 ng/mL. That is, 37 of 40 pregnant women had levels below 40 ng/mL, and the majority had levels below 20 ng/mL. More than 25% had levels below 10 ng/mL.
Dr. Lisa Bodnar, a prolific Vitamin D researcher, and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburg studied 400 pregnant Pennsylvania women; 63% had levels below 30 ng/mL and 44% of the black women in the study had levels below 15 ng/mL. Prenatal vitamins had little effect on the incidence of deficiency.
Dr. Dijkstra and colleagues studied 70 pregnant women in the Netherlands, none had levels above 40 ng/mL and 50% had levels below 10 ng/mL. Again, prenatal vitamins appeared to have little effect on 25(OH)D levels, as you might expect since prenatal vitamins only contain 400 IU of Vitamin D.
Thus, more than 95% of pregnant women have 25(OH)D levels below 50 ng/mL, the level that may indicate chronic substrate starvation. That is, they are using up any Vitamin D they have very quickly and do not have enough to store for future use. Pretty scary.
These chronic low vitamin D levels during pregnancy might be responsible for an increased risk of necessary cesarean section birth, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and vaginal infection in the mother and a higher risk of autism, mental disorders, infection, low birth weight, and heart/lung/brain problems among others.
“As a rule, in the absence of significant sun exposure, we believe that most healthy children need about 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily per 11 kg (25 lb) of body weight to obtain levels greater than 50 ng/mL. Some will need more, and others less. In our opinion, children with chronic illnesses such as autism, diabetes, and/or frequent infections should be supplemented with higher doses of sunshine or vitamin D3, doses adequate to maintain their 25(OH)D levels in the mid-normal of the reference range (65 ng/mL) — and should be so supplemented year-round (p. 868).”
Many kids aren’t even getting ¼ of that on a good day, and often when they do, it comes from the less useable vitamin D2. To this note, I would highly recommend testing your vitamin D levels, especially if pregnant!
Vitamin D and Oral Health
I’ve talked about this in depth before but I am convinced that the combination of low-vitamin D levels, low intake of other fat soluble vitamins/beneficial fats and high levels of phytic acid in the diet are partially to blame for the rampant oral health problems we see today. Since vitamin D has been found so important during pregnancy, it is logical that if a mother has low amounts of blood vitamin D, her baby could have trouble forming healthy bones and teeth.
In my own experience, optimizing my vitamin D levels, taking fermented cod liver oil, and removing phytic acid from my diet made a tremendous difference in my oral health.
Personally, I very rarely wear sunscreen, and only if I am going to be out for an extended period before I build up tolerance for the year. When I do, I only use homemade sunscreen bars or other natural options, such as a sandalwood tanning oil that I make myself. It uses a variety of plant oils that are naturally sun protective.
Isn’t this dangerous? Not in my opinion and even with a risk of skin cancer in my family I don’t worry at all about regular daily sun exposure without sunscreen… here’s why:
From my research and own experience, I’ve found that the foods I consume have a direct effect on how my skin reacts to the sun. Some foods (like grains and vegetable oils) easily lead to burning, while others (like FCLO and coconut oil) let me stay out for hours. Statistically, skin cancer rates continue to rise, despite the fact that we are (as a whole) spending less time in the sun and wearing more sunscreen. Diet can play a key role here, but it is also important to consider that most sunscreens contain a host of chemicals including a toxic form of vitamin A that has been linked to skin cancer.
Protect from the Inside Out
All that being said, I am comfortable getting plentiful sun exposure because I also take steps to protect my skin from the inside out. I eat an anti-inflammatory, high antioxidant, and beneficial fat diet and take certain supplements that increase my sun tolerance and help my body benefit from sun exposure. My basic routine included a grain free, sugar free, high vegetable and healthy fat diet and:
- Vitamin D3 (I take about 5,000 IU/day)- Emerging evidence shows that optimizing blood levels of Vitamin D can have a protective effect against sunburn and skin cancer
- Vitamin C (I take about 2,000 mg/day)- A potent anti-inflammatory, and it is good for the immune system too.
- 1/4 cup coconut oil melted in a cup of herbal tea per day- the Medium Chain Fatty Acids and saturated fat are easily utilized by the body for new skin formation and are protective against burning
- Fermented Cod Liver Oil/High Vitamin Butter Oil Blend (also great for remineralizing teeth)-Probably the most important supplement for sun protection. I take double doses during the summer and the kids take it too. Since adding this and the coconut oil daily, none of us have burned. It’s also great for digestive and oral health. (Amazon finally has the capsules back in stock)
- Astaxanthin– A highly potent antioxidant which research shows acts as an internal sunscreen. It’s also supposedly an anti-aging supplement. I don’t give this one to the kids though.
From the research I’ve seen, Vitamin D deficiency could be one of the most dangerous silent epidemics of our time, yet much of the anti-sun propaganda continues. Personally, I’m off to sunbathe and boost my vitamin D levels….
Note: I am not a doctor and don’t play one on the internet. This information is not a substitute for medical advice and does not in any way replace medical care.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Shani Muhammad, MD, board certified in family medicine and has been practicing for over ten years. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
What is your take on it all? Share below!