OPINION: It's time to think about sunshine
December 7th, 2012 | Carey Restino
This time of year, there's a lot of grumbling about life in Alaska. If there is snow, there's grumbling about shoveling. If there's no snow, there's grumbling about the lack of white stuff to ski, snowmobile and mush on. If it's cold, well, there's grumbling about that, and if a warm front comes through and turns the world glacial, people begrudgingly get out their spiky soles, spread sand, and grumble. Most of all, however, is the grumbling about dark. As the light fades, it's hard to avoid that Alaska is not the easiest place in the world to live. Sure, in many parts the sunlight shift isn't as extreme as the far north, but even when the sun is shining, or more literally skimming the horizon, there sure isn't much of it. And that causes problems, not just in our mood, but in our bodies, as well.
When I was 18, my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Schlerosis, a debilitating disease that slowly, in her case, anyway, robs you of the ability to walk, move your hands, feed yourself, and eventually, live. It's a nasty sentence, made all the more so by the fact that no one really seems to understand why it occurs. One of the few things they do know is that it mostly afflicts people in the north. And now, the link has been made fairly certainly between the high prevalence of Multiple Sclerosis in the north and a lack of vitamin D, otherwise known as the sunshine vitamin. Essentially, because of where we live, our bodies don't get enough sunshine to make vitamin D. Even if we went out naked and sat on the snow on a sunny day between September and March, our bodies wouldn't make any vitamin D (and the frostbite sure would be a bummer.)
It seems every couple of weeks, someone is touting some new "essential" vitamin we need, and my eyes glaze over like the rest of us when a new announcement is made. But this one makes sense to me, and hits home particularly hard. Do a Google search on vitamin D and you'll find endless articles about studies linking this vitamin and health benefits.
Low levels of D have been linked to everything from dental problems to cancer and a host of neurological-system diseases and afflictions (strokes, epilepsy, Parkinson disease and autism.) Increasing your levels of D can help prevent diabetes, kidney disease, mental health and learning disorders and cardiovascular disease.
According to the Vitamin D Council, which has a fantastic web site covering most of the issues and questions you might have about the sunshine vitamin, there are only two ways to receive vitamin D in amounts necessary for proper health: sunshine (ultraviolet B exposure) and vitamin D supplementation. Few foods contain vitamin D and those that do, the council says, contain too little to be of any noticeable benefit.
Getting enough sun exposure, even if you travel to warmer climates in the winter, isn't that easy, either. One of the funny things is that our fear of the sun may be part of the reason large numbers of us, especially those in the north, have a low level of D in our systems. Slathering on sunscreen every time we go outside may be great for our skin, but leads to low exposures to sun. An SPF as low as 8 can block almost 100 percent of vitamin D production.
"For hundreds of thousands of years, man has lived with the sun: Our ancestors were outdoors far more often than indoors. We developed a dependence on sunshine for health and life, so the idea that sunlight is dangerous does not make sense. How could we have evolved and survived as a species, if we were that vulnerable to something humans have been constantly exposed to for their entire existence?" said Frank Lipman, internationally recognized expert in the fields of Integrative and Functional Medicine and practicing physician, according to the council.
The council also points out that you need to expose at least 40 percent of the entire skin surface for vitamin D production. The torso produces the most D, while the hands and face produce almost none. And here's a shocker. While indoor tanning has long been deemed harmful, studies show a positive association between sensible tanning bed use and higher serum levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D production from tanning beds happens in minutes, and you don't have to actually tan your skin to get the benefits.
Here's an interesting factoid for those looking to get their D the "natural way." The darker your skin, the more time it takes for your body to generate the D it needs. Those who tan easily take up to six times longer than those with fair skin.
But if tanning beds are too much for you, vitamin supplements are the way to go. The million-dollar question, of course, is how much to take. Government recommendations are to take 600 IU of vitamin D per day for children and adults up to 70, and 800 IU for seniors over 70. But many say that's not enough. The vitamin D council recommends 1,000 IU for children under 1,000 IU for every 25 pounds of body weight for children over 1, at least 5,000 IU for adults and adolescents, and 6,000 IU for pregnant and lactating mothers. Anyone with chronic health conditions such as autism, MS, cancer, heart disease or obesity should double those, the site says. Some recommend even more, with numbers like 10,000 IU being suggested for those who want to raise their levels.
The two forms of supplement are dry powder, (used to make water-soluble vitamin D capsules or tablets and good old-fashioned cod liver oil, which is used to make liquid drops or gel caps. The council reports both are equally effective. You don't need to take them at a certain time, or with certain foods, and you can take D even if you are also getting sun exposure. If you are worried that you might be getting too much or too little, a simple blood test will tell you your levels.
There are some important cofactors regarding vitamin D, things you need to absorb the vitamin into your body. One is magnesium, a highly important mineral in the body anyway, which is important for all sorts of body functions. One of the better sources for magnesium, ironically, is found in that Alaska staple, halibut (and salmon is one of the few natural sources for vitamin D).
As with anything regarding your body and your health, the best approach is two-fold — educate yourself and then consult your physician and other medical professionals with educated questions. But as the darkness envelopes us and we muddle through the winter, being aware of this necessary factor in our choice to live in the north is important, especially if you are responsible for the health of other Alaskans, be they young or old. My kids take a vitamin D supplement every morning in a chewable form — they ask for it as their sunshine pill. It's a simple part of our routine that helps reduce the chance that my choice to live in the north will impact their health.
You can read a lot more about vitamin D and all the latest research at www.vitamindcouncil.org.