The hottest subject in medicine today is the amazing number of diseases associated with low vitamin D levels. People with low levels of vitamin D are at double the risk for blocked arteries in their legs, called peripheral artery disease (Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, June 2008); markedly increased risk for heart attacks and strokes, angina, and heart failure (Circulation, January and April 2008; Archives of Internal Medicine, June 2008); increased rate of aging of their tissues (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2007); cancers of the breast, lung and colon (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2007); diabetes (Epidemiology, May 20, 2008). Other recent articles show that Vitamin D helps pain control (Pain Medicine, April 2008); and vitamin D reduces the risk of falls (Archives of Internal Medicine, March 2008).
Next winter, ask your doctor to draw blood tests called vitamin D3 and D2. If your D3 level is below 40 ng/ml, you are at increased risk for a host of diseases. You can take pills containing D2 or D3. D2 is the plant pre-vitamin D that is so weak that it usually will not help raise your blood level. On the other hand, D3 is the animal pre-vitamin D that appears to be quite effective. Scientists do not agree on the optimum dose for people with blood levels of D3 below 40 ng/ml. It used to be 200 international units per day. Today, many doctors think that it should be at least 2000 international units. You can also meet your needs for vitamin D from sunlight by exposing a few inches of skin for 15 minutes every other day in the summer. However, during the winter in northern climates, the sun's rays come in at an angle and are therefore markedly reduced by the increased areas of atmosphere through which the sun's rays must pass. You can solve this problem with a tropical vacation.
I have found that tanning beds provide almost no vitamin D. Ultraviolet light is classified into UVA and UVB. UVB are the rays that cause skin cancer. They are also the rays that cause the skin to manufacture vitamin D. Since manufacturers of tanning bulbs are concerned about skin cancer, they reduce the percentage of UVB emitted from tanning lamps. This also markedly reduces the rays that provide vitamin D.
Yes, these new findings about Vitamin D are very exciting. For those who might want to dismiss the idea of a tropical vacation as important for your health, I'd like to offer this true family story:
My husband has two older sisters who have lived for years in the Pacific Northwest. Lots of rain, not much sun. Both have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
The older of the two sisters has much milder symptoms. She is still walking unaided and, although she is retired from her job, still occasionally consults for her former company. The younger sister's symptoms have progressed more rapidly. She is now confined to a wheelchair and permanently retired from her job.
The one major difference between them: the older sister took vacations to Hawaii to sunbathe on the beach once or twice a year. She did this religiously every year for 30 years.
Migrating to a tropical resort every winter isn't an option for me. So I make an effort to get outside for short, brisk walks several times a week. Leaving my arms bare is the simplest way for me to get sun.
I leave the sunscreen off so that my skin can absorb the sun's rays, but bring it with me if I'm going to be out for longer than 30 minutes. A big hat shields my face.
No one will ever mistake me for a bronzed sun goddess a la BayWatch, but I'm more relaxed and ready to tackle life's next adventure after I take my "sun" break.