Vitamin D critical to good health

We used to welcome the summer sun without any qualms or reservations. Then dermatologists began warning us about the harm the sun can do and the risk of skin cancers, including melanoma, which can be deadly. We used the sun to give our bodies a healthy tone; it was a cosmetic enhancement. Little did we care that long years of exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun dried out our skin and would surely leave our faces and arms wrinkled in later years.

We’re a bit more savvy about sun tanning nowadays; we got the dermatologists’ message and learned that the higher the number on the sunscreen bottle, the more effectively it would protect us. It’s wise to follow the advice of the skin-care professionals, and it doesn’t hurt to hear it one more time. The American Academy of Dermatologists offers these safety tips:

*âóè Generously apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.

*âóè Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

* Seek shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

*âóè Protect children from sun exposure by having them play in the shade and wear protective clothing.

And, of course, no tanning beds.

Now, along comes vitamin D with a ton of research behind it. We remember drinking milk for vitamin D “to build strong bones.” But recently researchers have discovered much, much more about the value to our health of vitamin D. And they say that most of us are deficient in D, because of lack of exposure to the sun, and, to some degree, because of the widespread use of sunscreen, which protects our skin from harmful ultraviolet rays but also prevents the sun from delivering its healthful benefits. Vitamin D is a hormone and it reacts in a process generated by the sun’s rays with other hormones in a regulatory way. The sunshine vitamin may protect against a host of diseases, including osteoporosis, heart disease and cancers of the breast, prostate and colon. What’s more, sunlight has other hidden benefits — like protecting against depression, insomnia, hypertension and diabetes.

Most of the body’s vitamin D will come from sunshine. Five to 10 minutes of exposure to mid-day sun will produce 3000 IU (international units) of vitamin D, a healthy daily supply. But are we exposed to sunshine enough? In the winter we are inside, and sun is not abundantly available. Age and obesity cause diminished vitamin D absorption. In view of these factors, and respecting the crucial importance of vitamin D for overall health, more and more physicians are testing for D levels and, where deficiencies are found, ordering vitamin D supplements.

With advancing age as another factor affecting the adsorption of vitamin D, and since the elderly are likely to spend less time out of doors, attention to an older person’s D level is important. If it’s found to be deficient, supplements are in order in amounts and frequency advised by a physician.

Anne Fining is director of nursing at San Simeon by the Sound Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Greenport.