Having left London when I was 5 years old, I grew up in rural Suffolk, a child of the 70s with the heat wave in 1976 being the hottest summer on record. TV was limited to Play School after school and Swap Shop on a Saturday morning, which allowed my parents to have a lie in. My brother, sister and I would spend most of our free time exploring and playing in the great outdoors that was our adventure playground. Our nearest friends were a cycle ride away, the nearest shop, a farmyard tuck shop, was a 15 minute walk across the fields. Visits to friend’s birthday parties were a rarity.
We made dens with sun loungers, climbed trees, played badminton of sorts over a make shift net made of garden string, painted pictures outdoors, ran amuck amongst the bales of hay in neighboring fields, and squealed with delight as our gorgeous English Pointer of a dog would tow my younger brother, sister and I across the lawn on his blanket, gripping it between his teeth until his gums bled, such was his devotion to us. And after a stupendous Sunday lunch each week, lovingly prepared with local seasonal ingredients by my mother, an inspirational cook, the whole family would go for a ramble across the fields, collecting wild flowers as we went, with my father straddling the ditches to lift us across to the other side. It was an idyllic childhood.
Today I look on with great admiration at my brother and sister wrangling the ever complex social diaries of my five nieces and nephews. It is exhausting just to watch, let alone facilitate! The extracurricular activities after school, the birthday parties, the playdates and the sleep overs. And in between that, much time spent is spent on screens, TV, computer, tablets and phones.
The change in our lifestyles in just one generation has however seen Vitamin D deficiency becoming an epidemic. It is currently estimated that 4 in 10 Britons are Vitamin D deficient. What has been known for some time is that in addition to being important for calcium and magnesium absorption (essential for healthy bones and teeth) it is also essential for the prevention of osteoporosis. More recently, Vitamin D deficiency has been linked other serious diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and kidney failure. Additionally research has also found Vitamin D is crucial for activating the immune system and in the past few years and numerous studies have shown that optimizing your Vitamin D levels may help prevent 77% of 16 different types of cancer, including breast, colon, ovarian, prostate and pancreatic cancers. Another study also documents a clear link between Vitamin D deficiency and stored body fat. It is possible therefore that sunshine may actually promote fat loss too. Do you need any more reasons to ensure you are getting enough of this vitamin?
What I find most alarming however are the rising cases of rickets among children. This bone deforming disease, previously associated with the Victorian era, has risen five-fold in the past 15 years. How can this be?
Although called a vitamin, Vitamin D actually behaves more like a hormone. It is made in the skin when exposure to UV-B rays in sunlight convert cholesterol in your skin into Vitamin D. This gets into your bloodstream and then into the liver and kidney where it becomes activated as a key steroid hormone called Calcitriol. From there it makes its way to the intestines, bones and other tissues interacting with almost every cell in your body.
For the last 30 years or so we have been advised by health officials to avoid the sun because without sunscreen, exposure to the sun’s rays will damage skin and cause cancer. Taking heed of this advice, many people have chosen to protect themselves and their loved ones with sunscreen lotions, with most children now wearing these at school. However, in totally screening ourselves from the sun, our bodies are prevented from doing what they do naturally, manufacturing Vitamin D.
This problem has been worsened by the increasing amount of time that children nowadays spend indoors, either on computers or gaming consoles or in front of the TV. It is also now believed that the synthetic chemicals found in many sunscreens may also be contributing to the development of skin cancers, not to mention the disruption they can cause to your hormones. Don’t’ get me started on that, as it warrants a blog of its own!
Our Vitamin D needs vary. As a general rule, pregnant and breastfeeding women, the young and elderly, dark skinned and those people who are unable to spend time outdoors, need more. Symptoms of deficiency include joint pain or stiffness, backache, tooth decay, muscle cramps and hair loss.
The best way to optimize vitamin D levels is through safe, smart and limited sunscreen-free exposure to the sun, which allows our bodies to produce Vitamin D naturally.
6 Top Tips for Healthy Sun Exposure and Optimising Vitamin D Levels
1. Respect the sun
It is a powerful medicine with potentially dangerous side effects on your skin. Use the lowest dose necessary and never fall asleep in the sun without protection. Always avoid the sun when it is at its hottest, usually between 11am-2 or 3pm.
2. Prepare your skin and build up tolerance gradually
Start early in the morning before the sun is strongest and slowly increase the amount of time you spend in the sun.
3. Aim for 15-30 mins of unprotected sun exposure 2-4 times a week
You need to expose your arms, legs and face. Frequent short exposures are better than intermittent long ones. You only want enough exposure to cause a very light pinkness 24hrs after, no more.
4. After your sun-screen free time in the sun, use protection.
Wear a hat to protect your face, light coloured clothing to protect your body and stay in the shade. If you need to stay in the sun for a prolonged period of time, then apply sunscreen, using one that has as few chemicals as possible. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s list of safer sunscreens here; http://www.ewg.org/2014sunscreen/ I love Neal’s Yard new organic sun care range; https://uk.nyrorganic.com/shop/sammill/area/shop-online/category/sun-care/
5. Boost your ‘internal sunscreen’
Consuming foods high in anti-oxidants such as blueberries, raspberries, pomegranates and Goji berries and beneficial fats such as fish oils (try Nature’s Sunshine’s Super Omega 3; http://sammill.eu.nspshop.com/super_omega-3_epa_(60).htm) will help boost your body’s natural sunscreen defenses. If going to a warmer climate on holiday, consider taking an antioxidant supplement such as Higher Nature’s Astaxanthin (4mg) at least two weeks before you go away and for the duration of your holiday.
6. Supplement with Vitamin D3
It is almost impossible to get your Vitamin D needs from food alone. The highest sources are from oily fish such as herrings, mackerel and wild salmon. So in the UK it is necessary for us to take a good quality, food state (ie non-synthetic) supplement, especially in the winter months and any others when see less sun. I use Nature’s Sunshine; http://sammill.eu.nspshop.com/vitamin_d. An oral spray is available for children from Higher Nature.
Although irresponsible sunbathing is unquestionably harmful and precautions must be taken, regular, moderate, unprotected sun exposure is essential for good health. It is the only reliable way to generate Vitamin D in your own body as it is impossible to generate too much Vitamin D in your body from the sun.