Finally after a long winter, the sun’s rays feel oh so good. On some days, they actually feel warm on our skin. In spite of how good it feels, at this time of year in northern climates, it still does not translate into vitamin D production.
Here’s why: vitamin D is produced by the body when bare skin is exposed to ultraviolet light of sufficient intensity. That’s the reason for its nickname — the sunshine vitamin.
But for much of the year, from September until June, the sun’s strong rays are absent in northern latitudes. Put that together with the practice of safe sunning and the use of sunscreen – as sunscreen blocks most of the vitamin D production – vitamin D shortages are thought to be widespread here, even in the summer months.
Particular groups, such as those with darker skin and the elderly, are at an even greater risk of a vitamin D shortfall as their skin is less able to produce the vitamin when exposed to sunlight. Overweight and obese individuals also store more vitamin D in their fatty tissue – as it’s a fat-soluble vitamin- which can lead to less of the nutrient being available to potentially defend against disease.
So what’s the big deal about a vitamin D shortfall?
It is indeed a very big deal. And we’ve long been in the dark about just how a powerful a disease fighter this vitamin is.
But lately, thanks to an accumulating bounty of scientific studies, vitamin D is a nutrient whose importance is finally coming to light. For many years, it seemed to simply piggyback with calcium as a partner in promoting bone health, and usually a much lesser partner at that.
Vitamin D’s status is certainly rising dramatically. Current research shows that low vitamin D levels in the blood may affect the expression of hundreds of different genes responsible for a host of chronic diseases. This means that if an individual has a certain genetic makeup, too little vitamin D could result in activating the genes that cause various illnesses. And that list of conditions just seems to keep on growing.
Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, certain cancers, such as breast, prostate and colon cancers, auto-immune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, infectious diseases and even allergies are on the list of ills linked to vitamin D shortages. The sunshine vitamin and pregnancy outcomes is also presently a hotbed of research.
At the same time, we here in the Great White North have never ranked very high on the vitamin D front. It’s a nutrient found in only small amounts in food and when you put this together with our lack of sun exposure, it makes sense. But the cost to both our health and our healthcare system may be enormous. A published evaluation of Canada’s vitamin D status, from the Sunlight, Nutrition, and Health Research Center in San Francisco, looked at the value of improving blood levels of the nutrient in Canadians. The report estimated that the death rate could fall by 37,000 deaths per year and the economic burden to healthcare by $14.4 billion – pretty incredible figures. The scientists recommended that Canadian health policy leaders consider measures to increase blood levels of vitamin D for all Canadians.
Over the next few weeks, I will outline some of the key vitamin D- disease links. In the meantime, here are some recommendations as to how much we should be consuming.
Many health groups, including the Canadian Cancer Society, are recommending that we up our intake to 1,000 IU per day for adults, an amount you cannot readily achieve through food alone. Others are suggesting even higher amounts such as 2,000 IU daily. Keep in mind that the Upper Tolerable Limit listed by Health Canada is 4,000 IU per day.
But if you suddenly increase your intake, keep in mind that there can be a couple of side effects- not common ones but ones that you should know about nevertheless. There have been reports of some people experiencing stomach aches after taking large amounts. Taking smaller amounts more often is a simple solution and a much wiser action than foregoing supplements.
Vitamin D supplementation may also cause leg cramps but not because of an excess of vitamin D. The leg cramps may be due to a shortage of magnesium which may show up when low vitamin D levels are normalized. So don’t stop the vitamin D, just be sure to meet your magnesium quotas.
Do you take a vitamin D supplement? If so, how much do you take? What about your family members? Please share in the comment section below.