The sunny days of summer bring on a slew of outdoor activities like cookouts, ballgames and time by the pool.
But sunshine and the vitamin D it delivers also play a key role in your health, said OMRF physician-scientist Judith James, M.D., Ph.D.
Sunshine is known to improve mood and help people sleep better at night. Exposure to sunlight also strengthens bones, bolsters the immune system and may lower the risk of conditions ranging from heart disease to cancer to Alzheimer’s.
“It’s called the sunshine vitamin for good reason, because sunlight produces vitamin D when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays,” said James, who serves as OMRF’s Vice President of Clinical Affairs and holds the Lou C. Kerr Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research.
Vitamin D is essential to good health, but in this age of sun avoidance and indoor jobs, James said, more and more Americans find themselves lacking this vital nutrient.
And, said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D., unlike many other vitamins, it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D through diet alone.
“Other vitamins and minerals are usually consumed in appropriate levels by eating a sensible, balanced diet,” said Prescott. “But this isn’t the case with vitamin D.”
As a result, it’s added to foods like milk, orange juice and breakfast cereals. Vitamin D supplements are also a safe, affordable option, said James.
James said vitamin D protects you from a long list of possible health problems, especially in regard to bone health.
“A deficiency can predispose anyone, especially girls, to osteoporosis and other related bone health problems,” she said. Making sure young girls get enough vitamin D is crucial for their ability to build maximum bone density, as everyone loses bone mass with age, especially women. If people lose too much bone mass, they are at higher risk of fractures, which limit mobility and are a major cause of mortality and loss of independence in the elderly.
New research shows low vitamin D levels can also raise the risk for developing autoimmune diseases like lupus. “In people who already have an autoimmune disease, if their vitamin D is low, data suggests their disease will be harder to control or they’ll experience more disease activity,” said James.
Making sure you get enough vitamin D is important. Just remember to be safe in the sun.
“Sunshine is important, but you can get too much of a good thing,” said James. “Wear adequate sunscreen to decrease your chances of skin cancer, and most importantly, don’t let yourself–or your children–get sunburned. Moderation is key.”