The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons?

The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons?
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If one is going to make an evolutionary argument for what a “natural” vitamin D level may be, how about getting vitamin D in the way nature intended—that is, from the sun instead of supplements?

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If one is going to make an evolutionary argument for what a “natural” vitamin D level might be, how about getting vitamin D in the way nature intended: sun instead of supplements? Let’s run through the pros and cons. Though supplements may only cost about ten bucks a year, sunlight is free. You never have to worry about getting too much vitamin D from sunlight, since your body has a way to regulate production in the skin; so, we don’t have to put our trust in poorly regulated supplement companies to not mislabel their products. Only about half the brands came within 10% of their labeled amount.

And, sunlight may have benefits beyond vitamin D, like the amazing story about how your body may use the sun’s near-infrared rays that penetrate your skin to activate chlorophyll by-products in your bloodstream to make Co-Q10. Well, there’s another way your body appears to use the sun’s rays to maximize the effects of the greens we eat. Within 30 minutes of exposure to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight, you can get a significant drop in blood pressure and improvement in artery function, thanks to a burst of nitric oxide-releasing compounds that flow into your bloodstream. You can even measure the nitric oxide gas, gassing straight off of the skin. Of course, you have to eat greens or beets in the first place for this to happen, but that combo of greens and sunlight may help explain some of the protection that plant-based eaters experience.

Morning sun exposure may help those with seasonal affective disorder, as well as improve the mood of wheelchair-bound nursing home residents. I’ve talked about the benefits of avoiding light at night, but underexposure to daytime sunlight may also affect our melatonin levels—which doesn’t just regulate our circadian rhythms, but may also be helpful in the prevention of cancer, and other diseases. Older men and women getting two hours of outside light during the day appear to secrete 13% more melatonin at night, though we’re not sure what, if any, clinical significance this has.

The downsides of sun exposure include increased risk of cataracts, a leading cause of vision loss, though this risk can be minimized by wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses. Sunlight also ages your skin, as illustrated here. Who can guess what profession this guy was in? He was a truck driver, who spent his decades getting more sun on the left side of his face—even through a window. You can see what sun can do.

The effects of sunlight on the skin are profound, accounting for up to 90% of visible skin aging: wrinkles, thickening, loss of elasticity. Things like sun exposure and smoking can make you look 11 years older. Cosmetic surgery can make you look eight years younger, but a healthy lifestyle may work even better.

The reason doctors preach sun protection, though, is not for youthful facial looks, but because of skin cancer. Medical authorities from the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, and the Surgeon General warn about excess sun exposure—and for good reason, given the millions of skin cancers and thousands of deaths diagnosed every year in the U.S. alone.

The UV rays in sunlight are considered a so-called complete carcinogen, meaning they can not only initiate cancer, but promote its progression and spread. Melanoma is the scariest, which makes the rising incidence among young women particularly alarming. This increase has been blamed on the increased usage of tanning salons. Tanning beds, and UV rays in general, are considered class 1 carcinogens, like processed meat, accounting for as many as three quarters of melanoma cases among young people: six times the risk of melanoma for those who visited tanning salons ten or more times before the age of 30.

The tanning industry is big business, bringing in billions. There may be more tanning salons than there are Starbucks. And they use those dollars like the tobacco industry, to downplay the risks of their products. Now, laws are being passed to regulate tanning salons, including complete prohibitions, like in the country of Brazil, to age restrictions for minors.

But unlike tobacco, right, tanning isn’t addictive—or is it? There are people who tan compulsively, and report a so-called tanner’s high. Describing tanning behavior like a substance abuse disorder seems, on the face of it a little silly—until you stick people in a brain scanner, and can show the same kind of reward pathways light up in the brain, thanks to endorphins released by your skin when you’re exposed to UV rays, such that you can even induce withdrawal-like symptoms giving tanners opiate-blocking drugs. So, potentially addictive, but dangerous. Harvard researchers suggesting we should view recreational tanning and heroin abuse “as engaging the same biological pathways.”

But there’s a reason sun exposure feels good. That’s a good thing evolutionarily, because sunlight is the primary natural source of vitamin D. So, throughout evolution, it’s more important, right, in terms of passing along your genes, to not die of rickets in childhood; forget skin cancer in your old age. Unlike natural sunlight, tanning bed lights emit mostly UVA, which is the worst of both worlds—cancer risk with little or no vitamin D production. But the small amount of UVB many do emit may be enough to raise vitamin D levels. If only there was a way to raise D levels without risking cancer. There is: vitamin D supplements.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to Kenny Louie via flickr.

If one is going to make an evolutionary argument for what a “natural” vitamin D level might be, how about getting vitamin D in the way nature intended: sun instead of supplements? Let’s run through the pros and cons. Though supplements may only cost about ten bucks a year, sunlight is free. You never have to worry about getting too much vitamin D from sunlight, since your body has a way to regulate production in the skin; so, we don’t have to put our trust in poorly regulated supplement companies to not mislabel their products. Only about half the brands came within 10% of their labeled amount.

And, sunlight may have benefits beyond vitamin D, like the amazing story about how your body may use the sun’s near-infrared rays that penetrate your skin to activate chlorophyll by-products in your bloodstream to make Co-Q10. Well, there’s another way your body appears to use the sun’s rays to maximize the effects of the greens we eat. Within 30 minutes of exposure to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight, you can get a significant drop in blood pressure and improvement in artery function, thanks to a burst of nitric oxide-releasing compounds that flow into your bloodstream. You can even measure the nitric oxide gas, gassing straight off of the skin. Of course, you have to eat greens or beets in the first place for this to happen, but that combo of greens and sunlight may help explain some of the protection that plant-based eaters experience.

Morning sun exposure may help those with seasonal affective disorder, as well as improve the mood of wheelchair-bound nursing home residents. I’ve talked about the benefits of avoiding light at night, but underexposure to daytime sunlight may also affect our melatonin levels—which doesn’t just regulate our circadian rhythms, but may also be helpful in the prevention of cancer, and other diseases. Older men and women getting two hours of outside light during the day appear to secrete 13% more melatonin at night, though we’re not sure what, if any, clinical significance this has.

The downsides of sun exposure include increased risk of cataracts, a leading cause of vision loss, though this risk can be minimized by wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses. Sunlight also ages your skin, as illustrated here. Who can guess what profession this guy was in? He was a truck driver, who spent his decades getting more sun on the left side of his face—even through a window. You can see what sun can do.

The effects of sunlight on the skin are profound, accounting for up to 90% of visible skin aging: wrinkles, thickening, loss of elasticity. Things like sun exposure and smoking can make you look 11 years older. Cosmetic surgery can make you look eight years younger, but a healthy lifestyle may work even better.

The reason doctors preach sun protection, though, is not for youthful facial looks, but because of skin cancer. Medical authorities from the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, and the Surgeon General warn about excess sun exposure—and for good reason, given the millions of skin cancers and thousands of deaths diagnosed every year in the U.S. alone.

The UV rays in sunlight are considered a so-called complete carcinogen, meaning they can not only initiate cancer, but promote its progression and spread. Melanoma is the scariest, which makes the rising incidence among young women particularly alarming. This increase has been blamed on the increased usage of tanning salons. Tanning beds, and UV rays in general, are considered class 1 carcinogens, like processed meat, accounting for as many as three quarters of melanoma cases among young people: six times the risk of melanoma for those who visited tanning salons ten or more times before the age of 30.

The tanning industry is big business, bringing in billions. There may be more tanning salons than there are Starbucks. And they use those dollars like the tobacco industry, to downplay the risks of their products. Now, laws are being passed to regulate tanning salons, including complete prohibitions, like in the country of Brazil, to age restrictions for minors.

But unlike tobacco, right, tanning isn’t addictive—or is it? There are people who tan compulsively, and report a so-called tanner’s high. Describing tanning behavior like a substance abuse disorder seems, on the face of it a little silly—until you stick people in a brain scanner, and can show the same kind of reward pathways light up in the brain, thanks to endorphins released by your skin when you’re exposed to UV rays, such that you can even induce withdrawal-like symptoms giving tanners opiate-blocking drugs. So, potentially addictive, but dangerous. Harvard researchers suggesting we should view recreational tanning and heroin abuse “as engaging the same biological pathways.”

But there’s a reason sun exposure feels good. That’s a good thing evolutionarily, because sunlight is the primary natural source of vitamin D. So, throughout evolution, it’s more important, right, in terms of passing along your genes, to not die of rickets in childhood; forget skin cancer in your old age. Unlike natural sunlight, tanning bed lights emit mostly UVA, which is the worst of both worlds—cancer risk with little or no vitamin D production. But the small amount of UVB many do emit may be enough to raise vitamin D levels. If only there was a way to raise D levels without risking cancer. There is: vitamin D supplements.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to Kenny Louie via flickr.

Doctor's Note

Yes, we can get some of the benefits of sun exposure without the risks by taking vitamin D supplements. But, for the sake of argument, what if such supplements didn’t exist? Would the benefits of sun exposure outweigh the risks? That’s the subject of the final installment of my six-part series on the latest in vitamin D science, The Risks and Benefits of Sensible Sun Exposure.

To see the first four videos, check out:

I also explore vitamin D as it relates to specific diseases:

Here’s the video about that amazing chlorophyll activation: How to Regenerate Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) Naturally.

What do greens and beets have to do with artery function? Check out some of my latest videos on the wonders of nitrate-rich vegetables:

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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