How to Get Vitamin D (Without the Sun)

Vitamin D pillsJust when you thought sun protection couldn’t get any more complicated, here comes vitamin D. This is a difficult issue: how to get Vitamin D without the sun.

The issue is you need to have a minimum level of vitamin D in your body to be healthy. If you don’t have enough, it can cause serious problems. But the body can’t make vitamin D on its own and there aren’t a lot of foods that provide enough vitamin D. So where do you get this essential vitamin from? Ironically, the major way the body makes vitamin D is from unprotected sun exposure to the sun’s UVB rays!

The Vitamin D Dilemma

UVB radiation from sunlight triggers skin to make vitamin D. Wearing sunscreen blocks the sun’s UVB rays from getting to skin, which is a good thing because UVB rays cause sunburn, premature aging of the skin and skin cancer. BUT protecting skin from UVB rays can also keep the skin from making vitamin D. 

So, on one hand we need to protect our skin from sun exposure but on the other, we need to get enough vitamin D. 

What is even more bewildering is when you read recommendations that going out in the sun for 15 or 30 minutes every day without sunscreen will get you your daily dose of vitamin D. It turns out there is no research showing how much unprotected sun exposure someone needs to make enough vitamin D for their body. 

If unprotected sun exposure is the answer for supplying your body with vitamin D what time of day should you go outside? The intensity of the sun’s UVB rays varies with the season, time of day, and geographic location. Is it enough to just expose your face and hands or do you need more areas of skin to be exposed to get adequate vitamin D from the sun? Your genetic skin color also plays a role because darker skin tone naturally blocks UVA B rays, vitamin D deficiency is very typical in India and Africa. The same is true if you have a tan, as a tan also blocks UVB rays. 

How to Get Vitamin D Without the Sun

Thankfully, there is a solution that gets you the vitamin D you need without damaging your skin. First, you need to ask your doctor for a blood test to find out if you are vitamin D-deficient. If you are vitamin D deficient, your doctor can advise you about which vitamin D supplements to take. Your doctor can also advise you about consuming more vitamin D-enriched foods. 

The supplement discussion is important. Be sure your doctor talks to you about the dose and frequency of use to ensure you don’t get too much vitamin D, which can cause its own set of problems.

Along with supplements, you can get vitamin D from foods enriched with vitamin D such as milk and orange juice, as well as from eating fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel. Beef, shitake mushrooms, egg yolks, and fortified cereals are also good sources of natural vitamin D.

Just to be clear, there is some research showing vitamin D supplementation as opposed to being outside for long periods of time is not as effective for certain aspects of health. For some disorders (one study looked at Parkinson’s disease), vitamin D supplementation increased vitamin D levels but wasn’t associated with improvement of motor function in comparison to being outside during the day. However, whether the improvement had to do with sun exposure or just being outside and more active was not accessed in the study. The association to vitamin D from supplements versus sunlight has not been proven. 

There is also some research showing vitamin D supplementation was not helpful when it came to improving bone loss, reducing respiratory infections, breast cancer, and depression. B those findings were not conclusive in scope as they weren’t comparative to daylight exposure and vitamin D levels. 

However, what no one disagrees about is that:

  • unprotected sun exposure ages skin and causes most skin cancers
  • tanning blocks vitamin D
  • applying sunscreen prevents sunburn and UVA damage

I encourage you to weigh all the pros and cons. Get your vitamin D levels tested and ask your physician for guidance.

What About Tanning Beds?

One more critical point: indoor tanning salons often claim their machines encourage skin to produce vitamin D but it is flagrantly NOT true. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a tanning bed cannot provide you with the vitamin D you need, nor is it safer than tanning outdoors. Tanning beds primarily emit UVA rays which generate a tan and DNA damage but are not responsible for vitamin D production. It is the sun’s UVB rays (the ones that cause sunburn) which help skin make vitamin D. Tanning beds increase your risk of skin cancer without offering any vitamin D benefit!

References* used for this article:

Annals of Oncology, February 2019.

Bone, May 2019, pages 136-142.

Lancet Diabetes Endocrinology, November 2018, pages 847-858.

Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, November-December 2018, pages 854-855.

Nutrition, February 2017, pages 76081.

Clinical Endocrinology, September 2015, pages 327-331.

Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 2014, pages 406-422 and 464-484.

Clinical Cosmetic Investigative Dermatology, June 2013, pages 221-232.

Journal of the Academy of Dermatology, June 2010, page 929.

British Journal of Dermatology, October 2009, pages 732-736.

Free access is available for some of the above published research but not for all. Many scientific journals and/or publications I use require subscriptions or I have to purchase the individual study. Due to copyright laws and terms of service agreements I cannot share access to the journals or studies that require purchase.

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