In the winter months, we often find ourselves indoors, meaning our bodies are absorbing much less sunlight and, therefore, much less vitamin D than in the summertime. Vitamin D deficiencies are extremely common as it is produced by your skin in response to exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Because vitamin D is an important factor in our overall health, we want our vitamin D levels to be optimal.
In this post we are going to look at the benefits of vitamin D, the health consequences that can arise from a deficiency in vitamin D, and how to get enough of this crucial vitamin in the winter.
Let’s kick things off by looking at why we need vitamin D in our lives.
“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.“
“Let the sunshine in.“
“I’m walking on sunshine, and don’t it feel good!?“
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray.“
“Little darling, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here. Here comes the sun, doo dun doo doo, here comes the sun, and I say, it’s all right.“
There’s a reason we sing about the sun. Sunshine makes us happy because it fills our bodies with Vitamin D, which is affectionately known as the “sunshine vitamin.” This is how our bodies naturally receive vitamin D. Sunlight exposure is the only reliable way to generate vitamin D in your body, and even weak sunscreens can block your body’s ability to generate vitamin D— by 95%! Safely absorbing some sunlight, without burning, is essential to maintaining normal and optimal vitamin D levels.
When it comes to soaking up those rays and generating vitamin D, it is interesting to note a few things: 1) You can not generate too much vitamin D in this way, because your body knows how to self regulate and generate only what amount of vitamin D it needs from the sun. 2) The rays of sun that generate vitamin D in your skin can not penetrate glass–you have to absorb them through your skin outdoors. Your body does not receive natural vitamin D when sitting in your car or near a window at home.
Why is Vitamin D Important?
In the past several years, vitamin D has been recognized as one of the most important preventative health factors. It’s already been noted here that the sun is the best source of vitamin D. In fact, ninety percent of our vitamin D is made this way. But what about when we can’t soak up the sun–especially once the weather turns cold, gray, and icy? When winter hits, most states see at least a 20% reduction in sunshine (some don’t see much change at all, but some see as much as a 40% decline in sunshine!). We can try to optimize our vitamin D levels during the winter season with food sources as well as supplementation– though before starting a vitamin D supplement it is wise to have your vitamin D levels checked.
Not surprisingly, the sunshine vitamin implies feelings of happiness. In fact, vitamin D reduces incidences of depression and anxiety. Why else do we need this vitamin? What does it do for us? This amazing vitamin:
- Is an immune system booster
- contributes to stronger bones
- aids in improved muscle function
- can offer protection from cardiovascular disease
- offers a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes
- is associated with a reduced risk of cancer–including colon, breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers
What are the Risks of Vitamin D Deficiency?
So what’s the risk if our vitamin D levels are too low? What might be going on in our bodies in that case? Here are a few symptoms that can indicate possible low vitamin D levels in the body (unsurprisingly related to some of the list above):
- frequent illnesses
- fatigue and tiredness
- bone and/or back pain
- slow healing of wounds
- bone loss
- hair loss
- muscle pain
Will soaking up less sun in the winter matter, if we’re getting enough sunshine in the summer? Studies say yes. We know that in the winter, even if we aren’t finding ourselves more ill than other times of year, all around us people are succumbing to illnesses, especially colds and the flu. There is mounting research that shows vitamin D deficiency is a major cause of influenza. Maintaining healthy levels of vitamin D throughout those darker, cloudier, more indoor months of the year could make a major difference in your health through the “sick season.”
How to Get More Vitamin D During the Winter Months
Go Outside (if the Weather Permits)
It only takes about 15 minutes a day in the sun to maintain vitamin D levels for most people. Because our bodies can store vitamin D, really 20-30 minutes of sun exposure about three times a week would also be sufficient! Because there are days that will be just too cold or icy, we are going to look at some other suggestions— but if you CAN get outside for fifteen minutes, take advantage of it and do so!
Eat Fatty Fish (like Wild Salmon, Tuna, and Mackerel)
A small 4 ounce serving of salmon contains exponentially more vitamin D than the daily recommended allowance, so it doesn’t take much! Two and a half servings of salmon a week would get you all the vitamin D you likely need. Mushrooms, eggs, and vitamin D fortified milks/milk products are other options if fish aren’t your thing.
Consider a Vitamin D Supplement
This isn’t always necessary, and should be discussed with your healthcare provider beforehand. While it is nearly impossible to get too much vitamin D from foods or the sunshine, it is possible to take more vitamin D in the form of supplementation than your body needs. Finding out your vitamin D level is as easy as a quick blood test, so take the time to check with your doctor to see where your vitamin D levels are–for most people, optimal vitamin D levels are 50-70 ng/ml, and for some, such as cancer or heart disease patients, levels as high as 70-100 ng/ml are optimal.
In summary, take time to take care of yourself. Eat nourishing food, take necessary supplements, and don’t be afraid to take a few moments to soak up the sun when it shines through on a winter day.