In my article about the benefits of red light therapy, a number of people were surprised to learn that vitamin D is the product of the sun’s UV rays.
UV rays, as in the stuff we use sunscreen for so we don’t get cancer and wrinkles and those blasted brown spots that make our faces look like the surface of the moon.
Since this revelation came to light I’ve been asked, “Well Heather, if UV light is what gives us vitamin D, can I use a tanning bed to get vitamin D too? I mean, they use UV rays, right? And before I forget, I think you’re the most intelligent and charming blogger ever.”
Obviously this was an exact quote. Exact.
Anyway, you may be thinking this is a ridiculous question because everyone knows that artificial tanning units are like cigarettes you lay in instead of smoke. Heck, they even sort of look like coffins. You know, to give you practice being dead while simultaneously transforming you into a bronze goddess.
Yet, it is also common knowledge that tanning beds use ultraviolet light. So wouldn’t it make sense that maybe the local Tantastic Salon can actually be helpful to those of us in need of a little sunny D?
Not necessarily. Read on.
UVA and UVB (and UVC!)
It turns out there are a few different variations of UV rays known as UVA, UVB, and UVC (clearly scientists really tap into their creative sides when naming important discoveries). All UV light contains radioactive energy, which is dangerous to humans. However, how much radiation each contains varies on it’s A, B, or C status.
Out of the trio, UVA light penetrates skin deepest, triggering the body to release a compound called melanin. Melanin is responsible for skin color, but it’s also designed to prevent UVA rays from damaging the DNA of skin cells (which is what leads to skin cancer). In fact, you can actually see it going to work when you get a tan, which is the result of cells releasing melanin in an attempt to protect your skin.
In other words a tan, while making you feel sexy and blemish-free, is actually a visible indication that your skin is at risk of creating mutant DNA. Seriously, can the news be any worse?
In fact it can. For reasons yet to be explained by scientists, there is evidence that melanin itself can damage a cell’s DNA. This is ironic since the release of melanin is the body’s attempt to prevent damage from UVA rays in the first place. But as it turns out, melanin can be just as risky.
So, essentially, melanin serves to protect us and kill us at the same time. It seems to be very confused about its role in the human experience.
UVB light, on the other hand, doesn’t penetrate the skin as deeply as its UVA sibling. However, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous. In fact, UVB light is what’s believed to be the main culprit for skin cancer since its radioactive energy damages DNA directly (whereas UVA damages DNA indirectly through the release of melanin – making it more of an accomplice than the actual perpetrator). Because of its superficial exposure, UVB light literally cooks our skin like a bunch of pork rinds and is responsible for those pesky sunburns.
Yet, in an interesting turn of events, UVB rays are what provide the body with vitamin D, a nutrient we can’t live without. A paradox not unlike the melanin debacle. I’m beginning to think Mother Nature has a really lousy sense of humor.
As for UVC; while this one holds the most radioactive energy, it is actually harmless to humans because its wavelengths are so short they never penetrate the earth’s atmosphere in the first place. I just threw it in there for the shock value. Plus now you have a fun fact to share at your next dinner party. You can always count on me to equip you with information that’ll blow people’s minds!
So back to why the different UV rays are important to know. While the sun provides both UVA and UVB (Holla UVC!), tanning beds primarily use UVA light. This is why they are great for giving you a tan, but also why they can’t give you vitamin D. Really the only thing tanning beds truly offer is a makeup-free week before transforming your face into your Great Aunt Helen who has her dermatologist on speed dial (is that even a thing anymore?).
Sunshine: The Best Source of Vitamin D
For the human body to make vitamin D, it must rely on external resources. If it doesn’t, the body’s immunity is compromised, muscles ache, bone loss occurs, and fatigue and depression set in. This is why so many people in northern climates often become depressed and tired during the winter months; the lack of the sun’s UV rays literally makes us sick.
Of course, you may already know that we can get vitamin D from sources other than the sun. Some foods naturally contain vitamin D as do vitamin supplements found at the supermarket. However, sunshine is arguably the best source for the good stuff. Let me explain.
While certain foods can provide vitamin D, you’d have to consume a great deal of it to obtain the amount your body needs. That being said, sources are all over the place as far as what an appropriate dose of vitamin D actually is. This is because the amount required varies based on a person’s gender, race, body fat levels, geographical location, and whole lotta other things. The National Institutes of Health suggests between 600-800 IU (international unit of biological activity, obviously) per day to maintain “adequate” levels. However, other sources recommend between 1000-4000 IU per day for optimal health. I don’t know about you, but if I have a choice between my health being “adequate” versus “optimal,” I’ll go with the latter.
Anyway, there are several foods that provide vitamin D, but only few provide enough to warrant recognition. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are your best bets, though there are many vitamin D fortified foods like orange juice and cereal too. That being said, even these will only make a small dent in your optimal daily intake. Sure, you can eat 12 oz of salmon or 10 cups of orange juice every day, but only if aversion therapy sounds like an interesting endeavor you’d like to explore.
However, to be fair, I need to give a shout out to cod liver oil. One tablespoon of this nutritional powerhouse provides a whopping 1360 IU of vitamin D. So two or three tablespoons with your morning toast and you’re good to go. Delicious!
A more palatable option for getting your daily dose of vitamin D is through a D3 supplement capsule. Indeed, this is likely the most popular route for individuals needing to boost their vitamin D levels and for good reason: It’s easy to take and doesn’t cause fish burps or frequent trips to the bathroom like its dietary counterparts. However, any vitamin – whether that be vitamin D, A, B, C, or anything else – is always best absorbed when obtained through its natural source.
That’s because when taking a supplement, it’s possible to take too much. People can actually overdose on certain vitamins, including vitamin D. Yet, the same is not true when they are consumed via their natural source like fruits and vegetables, or in this specific case, the sun. With vitamin D, the difference comes down chemical reactions.
The sun’s UVA rays do not actually contain vitamin D; rather this light initiates a reaction in the skin that gives the human body the ability to make its own. In other words, consider sunlight an ingredient in a complex recipe rather than being the final dish. As a part of this sun-stimulated vitamin D process, the body naturally regulates how much vitamin D is produced, absorbed, and stored, preventing any risk of overdose.
However, since vitamin D in supplemental form is taken orally, this skips the natural regulators found in the skin. This means, there is nothing to stop the body from taking in or storing too much. However, to calm your fears, know that vitamin D toxicity is very rare and not likely to occur. That is, unless you think downing an entire bottle of supplements will give yourself a little extra pep. Now you know: It won’t.
So that, along with the fact that sunshine is free and accessible to people all over the world, is why the sun is the ideal method for obtaining vitamin D.
How Much Sun Exposure is Enough?
I wish there was an easy answer to this question. As I mentioned earlier, the amount of vitamin D needed is dependent upon a zillion factors like who you are, where you’re located, and even what time of year it is. But here are some generalizations we can all benefit from:
- You only need to expose bare, unprotected skin to the sun for 10-15 minutes per day to get your optimal daily dose of vitamin D while minimizing the risk of UV damage. Being in the sun longer than this does not have a “more is better” result, and only puts you at risk for skin cancer. Time of day matters…. read on.
- The more skin you expose, the more vitamin D your body will produce, which reduces the length of time you need to be in the sun. In other words, naked people only need to hang out in the sunshine for like 5-10 minutes while the rest of us prudes have to stick with the 10-15 minute window.
- The best time to expose yourself to the sun is when it’s at its highest, which is when UV rays are most intense and effective. This is usually around noon wherever in the world you live. However, for people located farther away from the equator, there are certain times of year when UVB light isn’t intense enough to stimulate vitamin D production at all. Like, nothing all day. For months. Which sucks for Minnesotans like me. This is when supplements are especially useful. When are UVB rays optimal? … read on…
- According to Dr. Michael Holick, a professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at the Boston University Medical Campus, if your shadow is taller than your actual self, then the sun is no longer at a point where exposure is beneficial (by then the UV rays aren’t penetrating the atmosphere intensely enough). Kind of a nifty tip if you are uncertain about when the sun is highest in your particular area.
- Finally, there’s an app for that! The dminder app uses your personal information, location, and weather to tell you what time of day is the best window for obtaining vitamin D in your area. If UVB intensity isn’t enough for vitamin D benefits in the first place, it’ll tell you that too! (and when you can expect the next opportunity to present itself, even if that’s months away). Ah technology, people have thought of everything!
After learning about the benefits of red light, the adverse effects of blue light, and the combined positive and negatives of UV light, I think we can all agree that light in general is an important, but often-overlooked factor in human health. If you want more information about my experience using red light for skin concerns, blue light blocking glasses for better sleep, how I go about getting my vitamin D each day, or how to achieve optimal (not adequate!) health, don’t hesitate to contact me.