As a teenager in Southern Vermont, I made it my life’s mission to get tan. As soon as the snow melted and the mud hardened, I was outside in the dog pen, soaking up rays. In my mind, I was on a white sandy beach near the coast of a crystal blue sea, menu in hand and handsome waiter at my beck and call. In reality, I was laying atop a thin, tattered towel fending off crickets, beetles, gnats, mosquitoes and the like as I tried to slather myself with anything that would attract more sun than bugs.
Though I may not have tanned to my liking, or at all for that matter, it turns out that I had medicated myself with a hearty dose of our coveted vitamin D. We have found ourselves in a dialogue that tosses the pros and cons of sunblock around like a beach ball. It feels like we’re perpetually the primate in a nasty game of monkey in the middle. We’re told to slather sunblock on all exposed areas of skin, especially our kids’ vulnerable epidermis, but do we use a 30 SPF, or a 50? Even higher? P.S. We’re also told that sunblock is killing our reefs, contributing to the effects of climate change.
There are several areas in health and nutrition that seem perplexing and blocking the sun’s rays is no exception. The sun may seem like it’s hotter and stronger than it used to be and perhaps it is, but is limiting our sun exposure actually detrimental to our health? Many of us are on prescription doses of vitamin D3 because we’ve been told we’re low in it. Our milk is fortified with it, but still, we pop our pills and slather on the block. Are there some benefits we’re missing when we omit the sunshine?
The Sunny Side
It turns out that aside from bronzing our skin and providing us with daylight, sunlight is also pivotal for our overall health. There’s a reason we aren’t nocturnal. There’s also a reason that just getting outside for a few minutes to take a walk or soak up the sun elevates our mood and makes us feel better. A study published in 2020 is sounding the alarm about our lack of light and purports that it isn’t only our vitamin D levels that this affects. According to the study, insufficient sunlight contributes to ailments from Type 1 diabetes to metabolic syndrome to cancers. Getting sun each day — only about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on our skin type — has been shown not only to boost vitamin D levels and bone density, but is said to fight depression and lower blood pressure. It also plays a role in weight loss and weight management, improves sleep and can reduce stress and increase overall longevity.
What about skin cancer?
To be sure, dermatologists urge us to steer clear of the rays, opting instead for synthetic vitamin D. I was on my way to the beach in Key West one year when my grandfather walked into the kitchen, his face plastered in tiny band aids. Aghast, I asked what had happened. When he informed me that he had taken one of his frequent trips to the dermatologist and had had several lesions removed, I did an about-face, towel in hand and returned to an inside task, instead swearing off the beach for good.
While we are most likely careful not to catch too many rays, there are some safe ways to soak up the sun. Early morning and evening hours are safest, when the sun’s not too strong. Using clothing to strategically cover up sensitive areas of our body is a good idea. We can still sport our hats and sunglasses, but bearing our back increases vitamin D production more than just leaving our hands and face out. Depending on how dark our skin is, we only need 15 to 30 minutes to get a healthy dose of rays.
A Sunny Disposition
Sunlight promotes the brain’s release of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that has been assigned as our natural feel-good chemical. Serotonin levels help to regulate our mood and a lack of sunshine can lead our levels to dip. In our experience with unending Vermont winters, we all know about seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Doctors use sunlight or light therapy as some tools to enhance mood.
Daily Dose of vitamin D
A lack of vitamin D can promote osteoporosis, cancer, depression and muscle weakness. Symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency include achy muscles and bones, fatigue, lack of energy, poor sleep, hair loss, low moods, poor wound healing, heart problems, dizziness and weight gain, among others.
We don’t get vitamin D directly from the sun. The sun activates cholesterol in our skin cells to produce vitamin D, which is then stored in our fat tissue. There has been discussion vilifying sun blocks for shielding rays that serve as the catalyst to our vitamin D production. Schools of thought vary on this, but studies have shown that we don’t apply enough block to inhibit the necessary exposure needed to produce vitamin D. Now, to find a good sunscreen …
While in its preliminary stages, there is evidence that suggests that our cells don’t store as much fat when exposed to sun light. Early morning light is rumored to help people keep the pounds off as well, as there’s conjecture that the sun’s rays may shrink fat cells below our skin’s surface, helping us to maintain our waistlines. We can double down on this by taking an early morning walk. Even if the sun isn’t going to help us stay trim, consistently walking will.
Though most of us think of going to sleep as a nighttime activity, the sun’s light, especially that in the early morning, has been shown to aid our sleep. Sunlight affects our circadian rhythm, which affects our melatonin production. Morning light not only fires us up for the day thanks to the production of cortisol, but a study of 700 people found that those who spent time outdoors or in a brightly (sun)lit room each day were less likely to have sleep issues. People involved in a separate study allowed natural light into their living spaces each day for seven days and fell asleep 22 minutes earlier than other participants. They had better sleep quality and reported happier moods during the day.
There’s a fine line between getting a healthy amount of sun and getting burned. Only you know what works for you and how much is too much. Experts suggest spending half as much time in the sun as it takes you to burn, but it’s all based on your tolerance, health history and skin type.
Work your way up a little at a time to build a tolerance and work with your doctor to see what’s right for you. Natural sources of vitamin D include fatty fish like swordfish, salmon, tuna and sardines. Beef liver and egg yolks also contain some D.
Baked Basil Swordfish
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or more if desired)
3/4 to 1 pound swordfish
½ pint cherry tomatoes
1 garlic clove (minced)
Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)
2 tablespoons fresh basil; chiffonade into ribbons
Preheat oven to 425° F.
On a parchment paper lined baking sheet, drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil.
Place swordfish and tomatoes atop paper and drizzle another tablespoon olive oil on fish and tomatoes.
Place minced garlic on top of fish and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Spread basil on top of fish and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until cooked through.
Broil for 2 to 3 minutes if desired to crisp.