Vitamin D: The sunshine pill for health

Although our skin makes vitamin D3 when exposed to the sun, ageing makes the skin less productive. The problem is made worse by older people spending more time indoors.

Could shying away from the sun cause more harm to your health than good? There are many reasons why people shy away from the sun, ranging from wanting to maintain fair, porcelain-like skin to fear of getting sunburnt or the dreaded "C" - cancer of the skin.

Many of us know that our skin makes vitamin D3 when exposed to the sun, and this boosts bone strength by encouraging our body to absorb calcium, but how many of us are truly aware that having optimal levels of vitamin D3 can ward off countless diseases?

New medical evidence shows that getting enough vitamin D3 may be the most important thing you can do for your health. Vitamin D is touted as the "new" vitamin C in terms of how it supports the immune system.

But living in tropical sunny Malaysia does not mean that you are getting enough of the sunshine nutrient - vitamin D3.

Vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency is estimated to affect a third to half of the adult population worldwide. Studies have found that many people have lower levels of vitamin D in their blood as they age. Most white collar workers (ie professionals, managers, administrative staff) suffer in this aspect, as they spend all day in their offices.

Although our skin makes vitamin D3 when exposed to the sun, aging makes the skin less productive. The problem is made worse by older people spending more time indoors.

Few food supplements contain vitamin D. Milk fortified with vitamin D is the major dietary source, with only 100 IU per cup. Since there is difficulty obtaining sufficient levels of vitamin D through food or exposure to the sun, most nutritionists recommend taking vitamin D as a supplement.

A slew of new studies suggest diets high in vitamin D may improve life expectancy, and help ward off diabetes, gum disease, multiple sclerosis, and maybe even cancer.

When we go outdoors, most of us slab on sunscreen to protect against skin cancer and other forms of skin damage. This can interfere with the skin's production of vitamin D.

A mere SPF-8 sunscreen cuts vitamin D3 production by about 90 per cent, while an SPF-30 cuts off a whopping 99 per cent. What would be advisable is to wear a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of sunglasses to cover your face, while exposing as much of your body parts as possible to the sun for at least 20-30 minutes between 10am and 2pm to ensure maximum production of vitamin D3.

If you are unable to do this, it is then advisable to take vitamin D3 supplements.

Vitamin D benefits

Benefits of the sunshine vitamin

Vitamin D is useful throughout the body, from strengthening the immune system, to controlling cell growth. More than 2,000 genes (about 6 per cent of the human genome) are regulated by vitamin D.

The fact that every tissue in the body, including the brain, heart, breast, muscle and immune system, has receptors for vitamin D means that it is needed at optimal levels for these tissues to function well.

In recent years, there have been a number of research studies carried out on the benefits of vitamin D3. These range from cancer prevention to heart health and diabetes; and from Parkinson's disease to strengthening the immune system.

Japanese researchers report that daily supplementation of vitamin D3 reduces the risk of getting Influenza A by over 40 per cent. Another study found that people who maintained normal or optimal levels of vitamin D levels developed fewer viral infections, including influenza, and were sick for fewer days than participants with lower levels of vitamin D (according to the findings published in PloSONE, June 14, 2010).

Is the current RDA for vitamin D too low?

In 2010, the IOM (Institute Of Medicine, US) proposed that the current RDA for vitamin D3 be increased from 400IU to 600IU. Even this amount is way too low, according to the IOS (International Orthomolecular Society) in Canada, an organisation that specialises in researching nutritional medicine. They reported that vitamin D level recommendations by the US government are way too low to prevent some basic health problems.

The organisation, made up of medical doctors, is one of the most credible sources for information on nutritional medicine. The Canadian Paediatric Society's 2007 guidelines dosage recommendation is 2,000 IU a day.

Do you lack vitamin D3? You may if you:

·Lack sunlight exposure

·Are confined indoors, ie office or house-bound

·Use sunblock (SPF) lotion when outdoors

·Wear clothing that covers most of your body, ie long sleeves or pants, long skirts or dresses, etc

·Drive in a car with tinted windows

When taking a vitamin D supplement, try to choose a supplement made with natural vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), which is the same form of vitamin D made by the skin upon exposure to sunlight. Plant-derived Vitamin D2, (ergocalciferol) has been found to have lower potency compared to vitamin D3.

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