Sunshine Medicine

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Sunshine Medicine | Phoenix Helix

Sunshine Medicine | Phoenix Helix

“Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
‘You owe me.’
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights the whole sky.”
~ Hafiz (14th-century Sufi poet)

The Sun is Amazing

It’s 4-1/2 billion years old, sits 93 million miles away from Earth, yet still controls the climate and the seasons. It’s so big that its interior could hold over 1 million Earths, and life on our planet wouldn’t exist without it. In fact, human beings have a special relationship with the sun. Basking in its rays is our body’s natural pathway for creating Vitamin D. Very few foods contain this vitamin, and none in quantities high enough to support our needs. Plus, if you cut us off from sunlight for too long, it affects our brain function, our moods, and both our physical and mental wellbeing. We are intimately connected to this star, which we forget in our modern life of indoor living and allegiance to sunscreen. Today, I’m going to tell you why you should get out into the sunshine, every day if possible. Your body and soul with thank you.

Vitamin D

  • Why do we need it? Vitamin D is essential to functions throughout our bodies: bones need it to maintain their strength, muscles need it to move, nerves need it to carry messages between the brain and every body part, the immune system needs it to fight off invading bacteria and viruses. There is also a growing body of research connecting vitamin D deficiency with all sorts of diseases, from cancer, to cardiovascular problems, to autoimmune disease.
  • How does the sunshine effect work? We have a chemical in our skin that converts to vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. No other vitamin is created this way. Historically, human beings spent our days in the sun, naturally getting all the vitamin D we needed. Now, we have to make an effort to get enough.
  • How much do you need? Honestly, recommendations vary quite a bit. The NIH says that blood levels below 30 are too low, and above 120 are too high. Dr. Terry Wahls says that anything below 50 is too low and above 150 is too high. Chris Kresser says that the research is mixed and doesn’t support the high ranges that have been recommended in recent years. He believes levels between 25-50 are healthy, with 35 being optimal. So, what do you do with all this conflicting information? There is consensus that anything below 25 is deficient, and home test kits are available, to determine your levels. But how do you know if you’re getting too much? Let nature be your guide. With sunlight, your body naturally regulates vitamin D production, based on your body’s needs.
  • What about food sources? Very few foods contain vitamin D. Fatty seafood such as salmon, tuna, sardines, and oysters are among the best sources. Beef liver, cheese, mushrooms and egg yolks provide small amounts. However, it’s almost impossible to eat enough of these foods to meet your body’s requirements. We were designed to get our vitamin D from the sun. To give you a comparison: a 6 ounce portion of salmon will give you about 900 iu of vitamin D, whereas 10 minutes of summer sun exposure generally creates 10,000 iu of vitamin D. That’s quite a difference.
  • What about supplements? Vitamin D3 supplements have become very popular. However, this is an artificial override of the body’s natural pathway, and it’s rare for that to work as intended. It’s similar to taking an isolated supplement to replace the benefit of a whole food; you lose all of the synergistic components of the food. For that reason, some people in the real food community recommend fermented cod liver oil as a whole food vitamin D supplement. While FCLO might be a superfood, people have found that it doesn’t increase their vitamin D levels. So that leaves vitamin D3 supplements, and there are three problems with those: (1) Like the FCLO, some people’s bodies don’t absorb the Vitamin D3 at all. No matter how much they take, their levels don’t change. (2) Other people have the opposite problem. While the body naturally regulates vitamin D production from the sun, stopping when your body has reached an optimal level, people can overdose on vitamin D3 supplements. (3) Sunshine creates Vitamin D3 sulfate, and this sulfate is missing from the D3 supplements. Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a scientist who studies the role of sunlight on our health, believes it’s the sulfate, not the vitamin D, that creates the health benefits. She doesn’t recommend supplements at all. But while she is undoubtedly right that sunshine is better, studies have shown that D3 supplements can promote health, too. So what’s the take-home advice? Sunshine is superior, so if possible, get your Vitamin D naturally. However, if climate or lifestyle block your access to sunshine, D3 supplements have a place. Just be sure to test your levels regularly, to ensure your body is absorbing the supplement at a rate that is both safe and helpful.
  • What is the best technique for optimizing my vitamin D levels through sunlight?  (1) The more skin exposed to the sun, the more vitamin D your body can produce.  (2) Mid-day sun produces more vitamin D than early morning or late afternoons. Similarly, summer sun produces more vitamin D than winter sun. If your shadow is taller than you, the angle doesn’t support vitamin D production.  (3) Don’t wear sunscreen when you’re trying to create vitamin D, because it blocks the ultraviolet light necessary for vitamin D synthesis.  (4) If you have fair skin, start with just a few minutes and work your way up to a maximum of 20 minutes daily. You don’t want to burn. There is a maximum amount of vitamin D that can be created daily, and once it’s been made, you can stay outside all day and your body won’t make any more.  (5) If you have dark skin, it takes 1 to 2 hours to produce your daily maximum of vitamin D.  (6) It takes times for for the vitamin D to absorb through your skin into your bloodstream. Some people say it takes about an hour; others say it can take 2 days. Postpone showering for at least one hour, and when you do shower, be aware that soap can wash away some of the vitamin D that hasn’t yet been absorbed. Some people choose to simply rinse off, instead.  (7) Lastly, here’s a vitamin D calculator for all the geeks out there. It takes into account all possible variables. Just be sure you fill in all the boxes correctly.
  • What about cancer risk? Skin cancer is connected to longterm exposure to the sun, and to severe sunburns. If you follow the advice above, you should avoid both of those situations. Here’s a link to a recipe for homemade non-toxic sunscreen (to use after you’ve absorbed your vitamin D for the day.) There is also research supporting diet as a natural sunscreen. I certainly noticed this effect myself. Prior to developing rheumatoid arthritis, I ate a low-fat diet, and the longer I ate that way, the easier my skin burned. I didn’t make the connection until I switched to a GAPS/Paleo diet. I rarely burn now. The healthy fats and antioxidants present in the food I eat, seem to lend protection to my skin.

Mind & Body

In addition to all of the physical benefits associated with vitamin D, sunshine is also essential to our mental health. How many of us have trouble getting out of bed on cloudy or rainy days, moving a little slower, feeling less alert, and even a little sad when cut off from sunlight? There’s a biological reason. When sunlight hits our eyes, our brain decreases production of melatonin (a hormone that helps us sleep) and increases production of seratonin (a hormone connected with feelings of happiness and wakefulness). Sunlight is a direct part of our sleep/wake cycle, and when cut off from sunlight, those rhythms can get out of wack. For a day or two, we end up feeling groggy. For longer periods of time, we can become depressed. Spending time in the sun prevents this from happening.

When you spend time outside, you also have the opportunity to do it somewhere beautiful, whether it’s your yard, or a park, or the beach. If you combine sunshine with nature, you’re doubling the benefits. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that both memory and attention span increased after people spent time in a natural setting. And Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride lists both fresh air and sunshine among the top 10 influences that boost healthy immunity (page 320 in her book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome).

Modern life has herded the human race indoors. One of the best things you can do for your health, is to spend some time outdoors again.

Fun Extras

  • Here is a gorgeous slideshow of the sun, as you’ve never seen it before.
  • Here are links to folktales featuring the sun, from cultures around the world.
  • Sun, here we come!

Sunshine Medicine | Phoenix Helix

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This post is linked to the following blog carnivals:
Whole Foods Friday, Sunday School, Make Your Own Monday, Natural Living Monday, Waste Not Want Not Tuesday, Healthy Tuesday, Hearth & Soul Hop, Tuned In Tuesday, Traditional Tuesday, Well Fed Wednesday, Allergy Free Wednesday, Gluten Free Wednesday, Real Food Wednesday, Wildcrafting Wednesday, Whole Foods Wednesday, Party Wave Wednesday, Thank Your Body Thursday, Tasty Traditions, Simple Lives Thursday, Paleo Rodeo,

  Have you checked out my books?   Books By Eileen Laird | Phoenix Helix

15 thoughts on “Sunshine Medicine

  1. Pingback: Sunshine Medicine | Paleo Digest

  2. I definitely need sunshine and in the winter I will camp out on the floor soaking some up (My kids think I am strange but it does help!).

    Thanks for sharing on A Humble Bumble’s Healthy Tuesdays Blog Hop- I hope you will join us again next week! Kerry from Country Living On A Hill

  3. I’ve been trying to raise my vitamin D levels for years with little success (usually 10,000iu D3/day+fclo). I do get tired of taking supplements. A couple month ago, I decided to stop the pills and just use the sun to raise it (plus my fclo). I live at the beach in SoCal. Every day, I put on my bathing suit and laid in the sun for 1/2-1hr at midday, no sunscreen, didn’t shower until the next morning using soap only on a couple strategic locations. After 2 month…vitamin D was even lower. My level usually ranges between 8 and 15, and I can’t seem to raise it. What’s wrong with me? The doctors/naturopaths just accuse me of lying about taking my supplements.

    • It’s never cool to be called a liar. Since I’m not a doctor, I can’t tell you what’s wrong, but here are two things you can pursue with your medical team: (1) Inability to absorb vitamin D is often connected to a calcium/magnesium imbalance in the body and (2) Benign parathryoid tumors inhibit the body’s ability to create or absorb vitamin D: http://www.parathyroid.com/low-vitamin-d.htm . So, those are two potential avenues of research to check out. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      • Wow! That was helpful. You’re the first person, doctor or not, to give me any sort of hint as to what might be wrong. Thank you!

  4. Great post, Eileen! Since I myself discovered I have osteoarthritis I’ve been trying to get more sunshine and Vitamin D, and I do think feel like a few minutes in the sun seem to loosen things ups. Alas, I also spend winters in Vancouver, BC, and last year for a whole month over Christmas there was literally 2-1/2 days of sunshine, and the rest was gray and raining the whole time! Back to supplements… 😉

    • I’ve had the opposite kind of summer – it rains almost every day. But occasionally the sun comes out, and if I can, I run outside to catch some rays. It definitely keeps me spontaneous.

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  7. With fall/winter on the way, I’m wondering what I can do besides buy supplemental D3. Is there an effective “sun light bulb” or something. I feel SO rejuvenated after sunning. Fall/winter tend to be more depressing.

  8. Having had skin cancer with a MOHS surgery and grown up in Socal I fear sun exposure. My understanding it it’s a cumulative effect over a lifetime. Any suggestions for getting vitamin D naturally and safely?

    • Pusheen, I’m not a doctor, but my understanding is that short sun exposure is safe. The recommendation by the Vitamin D Council is to sunbathe long enough for your skin to just start to turn pink without burning. For many people that’s just 15 minutes at mid-day in the summertime. However with your history, I completely understand if you’d rather supplement instead. I do recommend getting outdoors for the other benefits, though. You can wear sun protective clothing if that’s what’s best for you.

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