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Vitamin D: Solar-Powered You

Every Thing Is Everything
A landmark 2001 study in the Netherlands found “in a greener environment people report fewer health complaints, more often rate themselves as being in good health, and have better mental health”, whether they're near city parks, agricultural areas, or forest. Outdoor areas. Areas where there's sunlight.

It's healthier out there
The study overlaid two extensive databases, one with health information on more than 10,000 residents of the Netherlands, and the other a land use database covering every 25-by-25-meter square in the nation, allowing researchers to know which people lived near city parks, agricultural land, and forests and nature areas.” (“Nature and Health: The Relation between Health and Green Space in People’s Living Environment”, presented in Amsterdam, April 2001 and excerpted in The Trust for Public Land’s “The Benefits of Parks”).

For me - and probably for you, too - this study confirms something obvious: we feel good when we're out in the park or woods, and we feel good afterwards. But why? Well, here's an interesting and persuasive thesis: it's the sun's UV-B rays activating our Vitamin D and hormones.

"It’s not just the brain that makes the 'feel-good' substance beta endorphin. When exposed to UVB radiation, skin also makes beta-endorphins right there on the spot. This may explain why people often feel so good after spending time at the beach ... Sunshine also suppresses hormones like melatonin, which make you feel sluggish and ‘down’." The Vitamin D Solution

Cost-Benefit Analysis
Americans spend tens of billions of dollars annually on anti-depressants. What do you think: drugs with side effects - or ten minutes in the sun three or four times a week, for free?

Can't I just eat it?
Vitamin D is one of the few things you can't get enough of from a healthy diet. Unless you eat a half-pound of wild salmon - every night. Or fifty pastured, organic egg yolks.
November 8, 2010. What a deal. Sunlight's free and you don't even have to strap a solar panel to your back to use it. Just take off your shirt. Or your pants.

Because your skin synthesizes Vitamin D - a lot of it - when it's exposed to sunlight. But get this: most of us are Vitamin D-deficient. And this matters a lot. As more studies focus on it, Vitamin D-deficiency looks more and more like a causal factor in everything from obesity to arthritis to high blood pressure to diabetes to breast, colon and other forms of cancer.

Sure, Vitamin D's about bone health, too - because without Vitamin D you can't absorb and use calcium to strengthen and maintain your bones. But it's about much more. Vitamin D is actually a hormone that's centrally involved in your metabolism - and in muscle, cardiac, immune and neurological functions.

So while the days get shorter and sunlit hours are fewer, you might want to rethink your relationship with the sun. I'm not suggesting sun worship. I'm just thinking that, when it comes to the sun, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

You and me - deficient?
How did this happen? Long story short: for millions of years, until a few decades ago, we humans and our primate ancestors spent most of our days outdoors and in the sun. During the last century, many of us began to work indoors five days a week. And about thirty years ago, the 'experts' told us to avoid direct sunlight in order to avoid wrinkles, skin damage and cancer. That's when things got really bad, according to Michael Holick, Ph.D., M.D., the man responsible for the first isolation and identification of the active form of Vitamin D and author of The Vitamin D Solution.

"The dermatology community and, more recently, the World Health Organization have recommended that people never be exposed to direct sunlight. This has been a major cause of this worldwide pandemic of Vitamin D deficiency. Drug companies can sell fear, but they can’t sell you sunlight, so there’s no promotion of the sun’s health benefits... Some fifty thousand to seventy thousand Americans die prematurely each year because of insufficient UV exposure, compared with nine thousand to ten thousand deaths in the U.S. due to skin cancer – skin cancer that can be prevented and treated when detected early... Melanoma is seen more often in people who do not receive regular, moderate sun exposure than in those who regularly spend time in the sun. Most melanomas also occur on parts of the body that receive little or no sun exposure."

The Vitamin D Solution is not an excuse for a tan. It advocates a "sensible amount of unprotected sun exposure". What's 'sensible'? "Our richest source of Vitamin D is the sun. Most of us need only a few minutes a day of sun exposure during the summer months to maintain healthy Vitamin D levels throughout the year."

If you still want to keep your face out of the sun, that's OK. It's only 9% of your skin. Your legs are 36%. Your arms are 18%. Your back: another 18%. So take off your shirt. And/or your pants.

If this has you re-thinking your relationship with the sun, check out the book - especially the eight-page "Holick's Sensible Sun Table" to calculate how much sun you should get based on your skin type and where you live.

And what time of year it is. Not much sun to go around these approaching-winter days.

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Take a walk on the sunny side. Any walk. Try a Better Cheaper Slower Walk - or map your own hiking trail to better health.
The Walk That Ate New York
The Walk That Ate San Francisco
The Trek That Ate (Organic in) Nepal

The Dark Ages
Old folks like me (should) fear falling because, get this: of the 300,000 men and women over 65 who fracture a hip this year, 10 - 20% will die within a year. And 50% won't regain their mobility; 25% will move to nursing homes. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports this in a study that shows Vitamin D supplementation to dramatically reduce the incidence of hip fracture.

Specifically, the study showed the benefit resulted from the daily supplement of 700 - 800 IU of Vitamin D and suggested that the addition of a 700-milligram calcium supplement may be necessary. How does this compare with free sunlight? Well, if you're a 20-year old, three or four weekly "sensible" sun exposures get you the equivalent of 20,000 IU. If you're 70, you can still convert that amount of solar energy to 3,000 - 5,000 IU. So get out there.

Of course, not falling down is a really good way to prevent all sorts of fractures. The Better Cheaper Way: balance training. Outdoors. In the sun. Stronger bones? Try Better Cheaper strength training.

Seasonal Affective Disorder
It's SAD. Sunlit days getting shorter here in the northern hemisphere, sun lower and weaker in the sky. Sad for everybody, SAD for some. Darkness prompts the body to produce melatonin, which slows everything down.

Some bodies can't suppress the melatonin release; those bodies end up with a major depressive syndrome. For many of them, daily "bright light therapy" - especially blue light therapy, is the solution. I'm no doctor and I'm not writing a prescription here. I'm just saying - get outside for a few minutes at high noon whenever you can. It feels good. It's free.