Monday Medical: Stay on the sunny side to get enough vitamin D |

Monday Medical: Stay on the sunny side to get enough vitamin D

Christine McKelvie

If you experienced last winter in Steamboat Springs, you know there was no shortage of snow and gray skies. Midway through the winter, many of us were tempted to change the lyrics of that famous song to, “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

Now, however, we have one more reason to “think sun.” Soaking up rays for 10 to 15 minutes a day, several days a week, is a good way to get sufficient quantities of vitamin D. The sunshine vitamin has numerous health benefits, including protection against some types of cancer.

The key is to get the right amount of sunshine without overdoing it. Americans have heard the skin cancer story, and the facts have not changed: Cumulative exposure to the sun is the No. 1 risk for basal and squamous cell skin cancers.

Intermittent, intense exposure to ultraviolet radiation is thought to be the major risk factor for malignant melanoma, which takes the lives of 8,000 Americans every year.

On the other hand, research indicates that vitamin D helps reduce the risk of certain cancers, including breast, ovarian and colon. The vitamin is believed to be a potent inhibitor of cancer cell growth. One study found that Canadian women who worked outside or had frequent outdoor activities during their teen years were 40 percent less likely to develop breast cancer later in life.

Vitamin D long has been known to play a major role in maintaining healthy bones. It also helps regulate the immune system and, as a result, may offer benefits against autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis.

Research has shown that vitamin D can lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation. A study published in Archives of Internal Medicine found a higher prevalence of hypertension, diabetes and obesity in persons who were deficient in vitamin D.

Children who receive insufficient amounts of vitamin D may develop rickets. This condition involves a softening of the bones and can lead to fractures, bowed legs or other deformities.

The recommended adult daily allowance for vitamin D is 400 international units, and supplements usually come in this dose. The recommended allowance increases to 600 IU for people 70 and older. Many scientists believe that it should be higher.

Fish is naturally high in vitamin D; 4 or 5 ounces of cooked salmon provide 400 IU of vitamin D. Other dietary sources are fortified milk, which provides 98 IU per cup, and ready-to-eat cereal, which has 40 to 50 IU per cup.

The easiest way to get vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D receptors are located throughout the body. Spending 10 to 15 minutes a day in the sun with 40 percent of the skin unprotected will produce 2,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin D3.

Decreased exposure to sunlight has become more prevalent as Americans have heeded the message to shun the sun. The American Cancer Society has not made an official recommendation regarding vitamin D supplements or exposure to sunlight, believing that more studies are needed.

Protecting yourself against damaging sun rays still is sound advice. By no means should you forget the sunscreen, especially on bright winter days in Steamboat Springs. UV rays, which cause sunburn and increase your risk of developing skin cancer, can double in intensity when reflected off snow.

However, spending 15 minutes in the sun a few days a week should give you the vitamin D your body needs for good health. Then, slather on the sunscreen and safely enjoy our great outdoors.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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