By Lynda Wallas

Vitamin D and Sun Exposure

It’s still a couple of months off here before the sun begins to make its presence felt and, rather than thinking about staying warm, we turn our attention to staying cool. I’ve found over the last couple of summer seasons that I’ve been a little anxious about the sun; trying to be sun smart while still enjoying the amazing health benefits of brighter, longer, more relaxed days. It just feels like another adjustment we potentially need to make a call on in mid-life (some of us more than others, depending on ethnicity/skin colouring and hence tolerance levels).

Sun Exposure appears to be one of those things where moderation is absolutely key. Too little sun and you increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, osteoporosis and depression. Too much sun and you increase your risk of melanoma and premature skin aging. So do the benefits to heart health, for example, outweigh the risk of skin cancer? Certainly if you looked at the statistics in detail, you would see that melanoma kills far fewer people than the other chronic illnesses.

Apparently supplemented vitamin D, while helpful, doesn’t do things quite the same way that getting some sun on your skin does. Nitric oxide is released into your bloodstream when you have sun on your skin, and it is this nitric oxide that lowers blood pressure. And lower blood pressure can prolong your life by negating the risk of heart attack and stroke.

I often wonder about our ancestors, they were outside way more than us – hunting, fishing, moving with the seasons or the food cycles. How did our species survive if they were vulnerable under the sun’s rays? Don’t living things need sunshine? Is it just sun burn that causes health problems? And have our skies really changed that much? Certainly it feels different when I visit my home country of New Zealand, the sun feels harsher, its quick to burn….

With all the press of the last 10 years, people certainly seem to have taken notice. In fact now many experts are talking about a reverse issue – a vitamin D deficiency in certain parts of the world, apparently to pandemic proportions.

More questions than answers…. which is why I think about moderation. It always seems to be best solution, doesn’t it? Somewhere in the middle, the best of both worlds!
It makes sense to avoid summer sun, especially in the middle of the day, and it makes sense not to burn your skin. Living down under, I understand the benefits of a sun hat and sunglasses, as well as cover up clothes for after you’ve had a healthy period of exposure – about 20 minutes seems to be considered acceptable and beneficial. But I could not choose to live my life in the shade solely. There’s something about the sun on your skin that tells you it has to be a natural state of being, something we are supposed to feel, one of life’s simple pleasures…. relaxing, rejuvenating and therapeutic. It does things to your state of mind that you could pay a fortune for elsewhere, right!

Vitamin D increases intestinal absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate, and zinc. It’s essential for healthy bones, a focus for women in mid-life and beyond. A deficiency leads to increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, as well as cancer. It causes cognitive impairment in older adults, something that we all hope to side step as we move through the years.

So perhaps rather than moderation as such, getting the balance right is more the key.
I love to walk my dog, I love to walk down at the beach, I love to be outside in the garden. I’m not going to stop doing those things (and I need my bones to remain strong and healthy in order to keep doing them). I don’t want to ‘lose my marbles’ in 15-20 years’ time, or earlier for that matter…. but it would be foolish not to take precautions to avoid melanoma.

I think we used to consider sitting in the sun as a bit of a rite of passage, and my goodness it certainly felt pretty awesome! Now in mid-life we should probably consider sitting in the shade of a tree with a great book and a glass of iced tea (or Pimms!) as our new summer happy place. Find the enjoyment there, getting our fresh air and sun exposure safely.

Here’s what I’ve become mindful of:
Enjoying the sun on my skin in Spring and Autumn, while avoiding the excessive heat of summer.
That the end game is simply a healthy glow (and if I need more glow for special occasions, then I choose a self-tanning lotion).
Walking the dog in early morning or late evening when the sun is lower.
Wearing SPF skincare and make-up products needs to become the norm for summer months, especially products with zinc oxide to repel the rays.
That tunic tops are the new wardrobe staple for summer; they still look fresh and cool, and still make me feel summery, while providing good cover…. And every year I look for a bigger hat, seriously! It has got ridiculous…. J

Besides these sensible adjustments, I thoroughly recommend taking a supplement through the winter months. Ask your doctor for a blood test to check your levels regularly. If you start to feel a bit jaded and de-motivated over winter, then vitamin D will put a spring back in your step and tie you over until the sun arrives!
Recommended vitamin D levels (as a general guide from Osteoporosis Australia) are at least 50 nmol/L at the end of winter, with levels between 60-70 nmol/L during summer).

So all in all, I’m less anxious this year, knowing I’m doing some of the right things. As with eating habits, there’s an overload of information on sun exposure dos and don’ts. Find the balance that you are happy with…. and that makes you happy.

Lynda Wallas
Lynda Wallas
About me

I’ve always been interested in health and fitness…. which turned out to be a good thing when fertility treatment in my 30s took a toll on my health, leading to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and early onset menopause. More about Lynda...

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