The sun has gotten a bad rap lately. We blame it for increased skin cancer rates due to a depleted ozone layer. We're advised to stay out of the sun and protect ourselves when exposed to its harmful UV rays. All of this is good advice, except that sunlight can also have positive effects on our health. Sun exposure on our skin enables us to produce vitamin D.
Health Benefits of Vitamin D:
Vitamin D is in fact the only vitamin that humans can produce on their own, rather than having to eat it. Technically, that makes it not a vitamin at all, but it's extremely important for healthy bones. It allows us to absorb calcium and use it to grown and strengthen bones throughout our lives.
Because it is so vital, food producers have supplemented key foods like milk with extra vitamin D for those of us who don't spend enough time in the sun to make sufficient quantities. That's actually quite a lot of us. People who live in places far from the equator suffer from a lack of sunlight over the winter months.
That makes it difficult for huge numbers of people to get the recommended 200 to 600 international units per day. Most Europeans and many North Americans are among those who need to supplement their intake of vitamin D, particularly during the winter.
The Importance of Vitamin D:
So we know now that keeping our vitamin D levels up is crucial to the health of our bones. But what is only just emerging is the possibility that vitamin D is important in many other areas of our bodies. Medical research has recently revealed some surprising new theories about the effects of this important vitamin.
As we age, we tend to lose some of our muscle strength. It has been found that this tendency goes hand in hand with a reduction of the vitamin D levels in our blood. By taking a supplement, studies showed that elderly people could increase their muscle strength. So making sure that you get enough of it may keep your muscles healthier for longer along with your bones.
Another surprising finding is that our immune systems needs vitamin D. Researchers have noticed that people who live near the equator, where they are exposed to more sunlight and therefore produce more vitamin D, rarely develop autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis.
Studies with animals have seen improvements for diseases including MS, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease and even type 1 diabetes by giving the animal one 25-D, the active form of vitamin D. While this may sound promising, the problem is that high doses of the vitamin can cause other health problems, including kidney stones and heart disease. But researchers are developing drugs which mimic the effects of one 25-D, hopefully without any of the toxic side effects.
It's difficult in this day and age to sort through all of the information and understand what is good for us and what is bad for us. In the case of getting out into the sunshine, the answer is that it is both good and bad. We all want strong muscles and bones and a healthy immune system, but without the potential harmful effects from the sun's rays. There are other alternatives and one of them is to it as a supplement.
So even though our bodies can produce vitamin D on their own, it may just be safer to get it from another source.