When The Sun Won’t Cut It – How To Get Enough Vitamin D Indoors By: Dima Ali M.D.
As summer comes to an official close, it’s time to adjust our routines. For many of us, the long winter months ahead mean far less sunshine on our skin. Far less sunshine on our skin means smaller windows of opportunity for our bodies to naturally make vitamin D.
Even in an average year, annual weather changes can create challenges. Many of us live in cold climate regions, or areas where yearly cloud cover can seem unrelenting. Combining darker winter days with a global call to stay at home, (so long, tropical vacation!), and we’ve created the perfect recipe for potential vitamin D deficiencies.
Thankfully, there are still plenty of ways you can get all the vitamin D your body needs, all from the comfort of your couch.
Why is Vitamin D Important?
Vitamin D is crucial for a variety of your body’s most important systems. When skin comes in contact with sunshine, the UVB rays present trigger the process of vitamin D synthesis, converting the inert form to the active form which assists with calcium absorption and other important functions. UVB rays differ from the harmful UVA rays closely linked to premature aging and diseases such as skin cancer.
In combination with good calcium intake, healthy levels of vitamin D allow your body to successfully absorb calcium from the stomach, build strong bones and muscles, and maintain a healthy immune system. Proper levels of vitamin D will help you to feel energized and are crucial to maintaining good skin and hair health.
Even minor deficiencies may begin to show through side effects over time. Mild to moderate deficiencies can result in chronic fatigue, weakness, dry hair and skin, or unexplained muscle pain. In advanced cases of vitamin D deficiency, symptoms will be more severe and more pronounced. A notable prolonged lack of vitamin D has been linked to chronic bone pain, cancer and even higher rates of heart disease.
How Can I Tell if I’m Deficient in Vitamin D?
If you think you might be lacking in vitamin D, you may be right. A shocking number of people do not meet their daily requirements and as high as 42% of Americans may be somewhat deficient. Luckily, questions about your levels can be answered via a simple trip to the doctor. A quick blood test can give you all the answers you’re looking for. I check vitamin D levels on most patients and more often than not, they are deficient – some to a staggering degree. No wonder so many come to us complaining of dry skin, hair loss, and fatigue!
The recommended daily intake of vitamin D is around 600 -800 IU, however those who are deficient should aim for a higher daily intake until optimal levels are reached. For patients experiencing significant deficiencies, I prescribe high supplemental doses in the 50,000-100,000 IU range once a week, for 3-6 weeks. Once the body is replenished, I switch them to 1000-5000 IU daily. If you could use additional help reaching your optimal levels, try one of the following methods to get your body back on track.
Watch What You Eat
Remember the saying “you are what you eat”? Well, turns out that it might be true…sort of. While an occasional slice of pizza, or a nightly glass of wine is probably not a direct reflection of who you are as a person, a continual neglect for vitamin and mineral rich foods can eventually result in deficiencies. Maximize the vitamin D in your meals by reaching for these foods:
- Fatty fish, such as tuna and salmon
- Eel and caviar
- Whole or Soy Milk
- Pork fat (not the healthiest option obviously)
- Fortified orange juice
- Beef Liver
Because vitamin D does not naturally occur in high amounts in very many foods, many items such as cereal, milk, eggs, and juice have all been fortified to make sure the average American can maintain their levels through a balanced diet.
Keep in mind that a large part of maintaining a healthy diet is finding foods you love, that also happen to have all of the essential nutrients you need. That means that if the very thought of mushrooms makes you sick, don’t force yourself to eat them. It’s far more effective to rely on foods you enjoy. Once you figure out which vitamin D rich foods are your favorite, work on incorporating them into your daily diet. Your body will certainly thank you.
Vitamin D Lamps
If you’re home bound and sitting in front of a window expecting to make adequate vitamin D, it’s probably not going to happen. Almost all commercial glass blocks the UVB rays which are needed to trigger vitamin D synthesis. Luckily, there’s another way.
Well known for helping a mood condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, light therapy lamps can also do double duty in providing you with a daily dose of vitamin D. However, not just any SAD lamp will make the cut. Only specific lamps, like the SPERTI model, will provide you with the UVB rays necessary for your body to produce vitamin D. Though lamps like these are definitely a bit pricey, they’re also effective, FDA approved, and better than heading to Florida to bake on a crowded beach.
Don’t be mistaken, these lamps won’t give you a golden summer glow. Vitamin D lamps are meant to be used safely, every other day, for just 5 to 10 minutes in order to regulate and raise your levels.
Vitamin D Supplements
Not all people absorb vitamin D at the same level. Darker complexions often produce vitamin D less quickly than those with lighter complexions due to the higher levels of melanin which block UVB absorption. However, prolonged sun exposure can have harmful effects on any complexion. Younger individuals may also be more effective at obtaining vitamin D from the sun. As you grow older, your skin becomes less efficient at producing the levels that you need.
If you are unable to efficiently convert UVB rays, have trouble getting enough vitamin D in your daily diet, or simply want a quick and cost effective solution, a daily supplement might be the answer.
Many supplements are advertised as a “one size fits all”. However, like most things in life, this just isn’t true. There are actually two kinds of vitamin D that our bodies need- D2 and D3. A good supplement will contain both. Though too little vitamin D can be harmful, too much can be harmful as well, although it is exceptionally difficult for toxic levels of vitamin D to be reached. Higher supplemental levels should be prescribed when deficiencies are severe, as I’ve seen in many of my own patients. Look for multivitamins or supplements that meet your specific needs and take them daily, or as often as you are able. Check with your doctor if you’re unsure and get tested!
Don’t Overdo It!
While vitamin D deficiencies are more common in the winter and are a real concern for many people, there’s a good chance you may already be doing everything right. Extreme attempts to raise your levels can be hazardous to your health. While limited sun exposure can be healthy and effective in raising your levels, it’s incredibly easy to overdo it, even in the winter months.
It is a sad fact of life that you cannot get UVB rays from the sun without the presence of UVA. UVA rays are harmful and exposure has been undeniably linked to serious diseases and dangerous skin cancers such as melanoma, not to mention accelerated aging, fine lines, and dark spots.
Though most of us probably associate a mean sunburn with summertime, any skier or winter hiker could tell you that’s just not true. Even in winter months, harmful UVA rays from the sun can burn and damage your skin, sometimes without you even realizing it. So next time you hit the slopes, or even take a long winter walk on a sunny day, don’t forget to protect yourself. An effective sunscreen with decent levels of SPF will help you avoid sun damage that can last a lifetime.
Combining moderate, healthy sun exposure with any of the methods listed above can ensure that you not only protect yourself from sun damage, but also keep your vitamin D levels up year round.