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May 12, 2014. 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. Seems to be a lot more sun-avoidance than sun worship these days. 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.

Last month, The British Medical Journal published two very large-scale studies. This article concludes that low Vitamin D levels are strongly associated “with risks of death due to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other causes. Supplementation with vitamin D3 significantly reduces overall mortality among older adults; however, before any widespread supplementation, further investigations will be required to establish the optimal dose and duration and whether vitamin D3 and D2 have different effects on mortality risk.” There may not be a pill to replace sunlight, but there’s always sunlight to replace a lot of pills.

Sun, with a good chance of a good mood
Moving along to happier topics, let’s consider your mood. Which may be brightening now that the sun’s getting a little higher and staying a little longer each day. The opposite of what you may feel when those winter days were getting shorter and darker. Feelings and related health problems known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) when they become extreme.

So what’s up? Here’s an interesting and persuasive thesis: the sun’s UV-B rays activate our Vitamin D and our endorphins. 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: “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‘s 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. Might lead you to conclude that, when it comes to the sun, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Good Light And D
I’m no doctor and I’m not writing a prescription here. I’m just saying be GLAD the days are getting longer and brighter – and get outside for a few minutes at high noon whenever you can. It feels good. It’s free.

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.

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. Because Vitamin D allows your body to absorb calcium to strengthen your bones.

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.

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