Is D the New C?
If you’re like me and other women conscious of the effects of aging, you have probably been avoiding sun exposure to a lot of your face and body. Sun spots, wrinkles, leathery skin, not to mention melanoma are a growing concern for all of us, especially as we age. We buy the expensive 60+ spf sunscreens and spend a fortune on self tanners that give us that “sunkissed” look, even in the winter. Many of us have grown to fear any kind of sun exposure and yet the truth is, we could be doing irreparable damage to our health in the process.
No, I’m not advocating for all of us to start laying out in the sun, reflector in hand, slathered in baby oil (remember the good old ‘70s and ‘80s?) or hitting the tanning beds, but I do think it’s important to talk about how and why we may want to reconsider our vampiric ways and let sunlight back into our lives.
HERE’S WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
A lack of vitamin D can lead to or increase your risk of osteoporosis, depression, breast cancer, prostate cancer, high blood pressure, pulmonary disease, chronic pain, immune dysfunction, and/or diabetes. “D” is now increasingly understood to play an important role in metabolic and immune system functions, as well as being linked to sleep problems and daytime fatigue.
Does that send you running out to your local pharmacy for supplements? In fact, many experts are advocating a minimum of 4000-6000 IU per day which is way more than most of us even consider taking as a supplement. Yet we should, according to experts like Dr. Gary Null.
Ah, but here’s the catch 22.
WHY YOU NEED SUNLIGHT
The ultraviolet rays of the sun spur our bodies into producing vitamin D and no matter how many supplements we take, sun exposure is still the most effective tool for maintaining appropriate levels. Remember, we are born naked and our ancestors spent their lives frolicking out in the sun. Our bodies need sunlight to survive well and even the weakest of sunscreens are going to block your body’s ability to create vitamin D through sun exposure by 95%.(Source: Dr. Michael Holick, author The U.V. Advantage).
A current recommendation for sun exposure in order for your body to create appropriate levels of vitamin D is approximately 20 minutes a day without sunscreen. However, our body’s ability to create vitamin D through sun exposure decreases with age. Also, people with darker skin pigmentation may need 20-30 times as much sun exposure as fair skinned people in order for their bodies to create sufficient amounts.*
SUPPLEMENTS AND DIET – NOT YOUR ONLY OPTIONS
Some of the best food sources of vitamin D are: cod liver oil, fatty fish, fortified milk, fortified orange juice, egg yolks, canned tuna, sockeye salmon, and beef liver. If you are “watching your weight”, lactose intolerant, cutting down on dairy or on a vegetarian/vegan diet, you can see how getting enough through your diet could quickly become an issue.
Vitamin D supplements are of course still a good option and in most cases better than nothing. (Note: They should be taken with the heaviest meal of the day because they are absorbed best with fatty foods.) Get tested for vitamin D deficiency and get yourself out into the sunshine to see if it makes a difference to your overall mood.
THE SUN IS NOT YOUR ENEMY (YES, REALLY!)
Thinking of taking that step out of the shade and into the light? Here are some important things that you need to know about how to do it safely.
Start slowly. If you are very fair skinned or have been hiding out of the sun for years, start with only a few minutes a day (without sunscreen) to let your body’s melanocyte cells kick into gear. These are the cells that allow you to tan and also give you the pigmentation to protect your skin from the sun. If you are going to be outside for a while, take some sunscreen with you to apply later. Going from pasty white to lobster red is extremely harmful to your skin and each time you burn, you increase your risk of skin cancer.
Protect your face and eyes. The skin of your hands, face, and especially around your eyes is thin and sensitive. When you are going to be out for a duration of time, wear a hat or a light sunscreen on these areas to help avoid wrinkles and UV damage.
Timing is everything. Believe it or not, the best time to get some sun exposure is noon. Because the sun is highest in the sky and there is more UVB radiation in the spectrum than harmful UVA rays, you can maximize the amount of vitamin D you can absorb in a shorter period of time. So a 15-20 minute walk out your office door and into the sunshine during your lunch break is a great way to get your sunshine vitamin D quota.
Cover up those tattoos. Maybe it was an ill-advised 18th birthday drunken dare or a beautiful piece of body art to celebrate a life milestone – but tattoos should NEVER be exposed to the sun. Not only will any sun exposure fade them out over time, but the amount of sun a tattoo can tolerate versus non pigmented skin is very different. If you overdo it and manage to sunburn your tattoo, your immune system will see that as a cue to take the foreign pigments away through the lymph nodes at an even greater rate. That is another potential source of “dis-ease”.
NEVER go in the sun after a photofacial or chemical peel. If you have ever tried these cosmetic procedures, you are likely familiar with the side effects, which can include redness, swelling, slight bruising, itching, peeling, scabbing, or hyper/hypo-pigmentation (darkening or lightening of the skin). It is crucial to keep the treated areas out of the sun for a long duration after you have had these procedures because your skin is very vulnerable to burning, irritation, and long term irreparable damage (follow your specialist’s advice to the letter). Evidently Restylane, Botox, and Juvederm are all ok with natural sun exposure but obviously be aware that any tanning you do is going to contribute to reversing the effects of your treatment.
So do I regret going sunless at 30? Nope. Regrets are a waste of energy – I made decisions based on the best information I could obtain at the time and over 20 years later I have youthful looking skin on my decolletage, hands, throat and face (the primary giveaways of age and sun damage) to show for it.
Would I do things differently? Probably. Decades of health issues have led me to take a long, hard look at their causes and I do believe that part of my immune system being compromised was potentially due to a lack of vitamin D. So now I choose to do both – I tan responsibly and I take additional vitamin D supplements.
As with anything in life, information is power. I have made a decision to look at the sun differently now, so to speak. It is not my enemy but a tool I can use with caution and respect to help optimize my health – on my terms! *(Source: U.S. National Institute of Health).