The shorter days of winter, combined with weather that makes the sun hide for days on end, often means your skin doesn’t get too much one-on-one time with the sun. It’s dark as you drive to work, and dark when you leave your office. With very little chance to spend time in the sun, how are you supposed to get the vitamin D your body needs?
Why Do You Need Vitamin D?
Vitamin D provides amazing health benefits that prevent future diseases, and it even helps your immune system in the here and now. Because having enough vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, it also helps strengthen your bones. It also can help prevent osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, strokes, Alzheimer’s Disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It can even improve brain function.
And if you have a vitamin D deficiency, you may be more susceptible to tiredness and fatigue, seasonal affective disorder, constant coughs and colds, low mood, and poor bone and tooth health.
How Do You Get Enough Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is unique in that it’s made in our skin when we’re exposed to sunlight. In fact, our bodies can actually make our complete requirement of vitamin D from sunlight. But that proves a problem when winter hits and we see much less of the sun.
If you live anywhere north of Los Angeles, you’ll struggle to get enough vitamin D from sun exposure from November to March because that’s when the sun is very low in the sky. While our bodies do store vitamin D from the summer, it isn’t enough and we need to continue to get vitamin D throughout the winter months.
But you can help yourself by being sure you get 15 minutes of midday sun every day from April to October to help your body store vitamin D. The more skin that is exposed to the sun, the better your absorption will be. But be careful because absorption happens quickly. You shouldn’t aim for a tan or a burn in the name of getting enough vitamin D.
There are several factors involved in how adequate your sun exposure will be:
- The color of your skin (darker skinned people need more time in the sun for vitamin D absorption)
- Your altitude (your body makes more vitamin D at higher altitudes)
- Cloud cover (less UVB reaches your skin on a cloudy day)
- The time of day (midday sun allows your body to produce more vitamin D)
- The amount of skin you expose (more exposed skin = more vitamin D)
- Your age (The skin has a harder time producing vitamin D as we age)
- Pollution levels (Pollution soaks up UVB, giving you less opportunity to produce vitamin D)
These factors make it hard to work out exactly how much sun exposure you need for proper levels of vitamin D. A good guideline is to spend half the time in the sun that it will take for your skin to begin to burn.
Alternate Sources of Vitamin D
Even though it’s the best source of vitamin D, sunshine is not the only source. Some foods can provide vitamin D, like fatty fish (wild salmon, tuna, mackerel), eggs, and mushrooms. Vitamin D fortified foods like milk, breakfast cereals, orange juice, cheese, and tofu are also good sources of vitamin D.
But this is why it’s tricky to get enough vitamin D without the sun: With the exception of fatty fish, most foods that have vitamin D have relatively small amounts.
Can You Take a Supplement?
So why not just take a supplement during the winter months, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.
At this point, there is no general consensus on appropriate levels of a vitamin D supplement. The Food and Nutrition Board recommends 400 IU a day for infants, 600 IU a day for children, and 600 IU a day for adults, with 800 IU a day for seniors. However, he Vitamin D Council more than doubles those recommendations.
Too much vitamin D can lead to kidney stones and kidney failure, so this is not one supplement to be taken lightly. If you take too much, your body has a hard time getting rid of it. Visiting your doctor to get your vitamin D levels tested is a good idea.
When Trying to Get Enough Vitamin D, Should You Use Sunscreen?
If you’re ever asking if you should use sunscreen when outside, the answer is yes. The risks that can come from sun exposure — sun burns, blistering, skin cancers, and more — are too great to skip sun safety. But will you still get enough vitamin D if you’re using sunscreen?
One Australian study showed no difference in vitamin D between adults who used sunscreen and those who used a placebo screen. In fact, studies have never found that everyday sunscreen leads to your body not producing enough vitamin D. Instead, studies show that people who continue to use sunscreen continue to maintain their vitamin D levels. It’s theorized that even with sunscreen, 2 to 7 percent of solar UVB continues to reach your skin. This amount allows you to maintain your vitamin D levels.
Because sunscreen can dramatically reduce your risk of developing melanoma, premature skin aging, and more — and because it doesn’t prevent you from storing vitamin D — sunscreen is a win-win. Keep slathering it on.