"Is Sunscreen the new Margarine?" - Rowan Jacobsen
Current guidelines for sun exposure are unhealthy and unscientific, controversial new research suggests—and quite possibly even racist. How did we get it so wrong?
These are dark days for supplements. Although they are a $30-plus billion market in the United States alone, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, beta-carotene, glucosamine, chondroitin, and fish oil have now flopped in study after study.
If there was one supplement that seemed sure to survive the rigorous tests, it was vitamin D. People with low levels of vitamin D in their blood have significantly higher rates of virtually every disease and disorder you can think of: cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, autoimmune conditions, and more. The vitamin is required for calcium absorption and is thus essential for bone health, but as evidence mounted that lower levels of vitamin D were associated with so many diseases, health experts began suspecting that it was involved in many other biological processes as well.
And they believed that most of us weren’t getting enough of it. This made sense. Vitamin D is a hormone manufactured by the skin with the help of sunlight. It’s difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities through diet. When our ancestors lived outdoors in tropical regions and ran around half naked, this wasn’t a problem. We produced all the vitamin D we needed from the sun.
But today most of us have indoor jobs, and when we do go outside, we’ve been taught to protect ourselves from dangerous UV rays, which can cause skin cancer. Sunscreen also blocks our skin from making vitamin D, but that’s OK, says the American Academy of Dermatology, which takes a zero-tolerance stance on sun exposure: “You need to protect your skin from the sun every day, even when it’s cloudy,” it advises on its website. Better to slather on sunblock, we’ve all been told, and compensate with vitamin D pills.
Yet vitamin D supplementation has failed spectacularly in clinical trials. Five years ago, researchers were already warning that it showed zero benefit, and the evidence has only grown stronger. In November, one of the largest and most rigorous trials of the vitamin ever conducted—in which 25,871 participants received high doses for five years—found no impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.
How did we get it so wrong? How could people with low vitamin D levels clearly suffer higher rates of so many diseases and yet not be helped by supplementation?
As it turns out, a rogue band of researchers has had an explanation all along. And if they’re right, it means that once again we have been epically misled.
These rebels argue that what made the people with high vitamin D levels so healthy was not the vitamin itself. That was just a marker. Their vitamin D levels were high because they were getting plenty of exposure to the thing that was really responsible for their good health—that big orange ball shining down from above.
How We Make Vitamin D From the Sun
For years and years (basically all of human history until the last few hundred years) humans obtained vitamin D from the sun in varied amounts based on proximity to the equator. Obtaining it from food wasn’t really a feasible option, since most foods didn’t have any mentionable level of vitamin D.
So, we all remember from elementary science class that organisms like plants and algae use sunlight for photosynthesis to create oxygen and other important by-products. Sunlight doesn’t work quite the same way for us, but is still just as important. When we are exposed to ultraviolet-B light from the sun or artificial sources, our bodies create vitamin D3, or cholecalciferol photochemically in our skin.
Food sources like fatty fish, eggs, and meat also provide D3. However, once vitamin D enters the body, it is then transported through the bloodstream to the liver where it is converted into the prohormone calcidiol. Calcidiol is then converted by the kidneys or organisms in the immune system into calatinol. Calatinol circulates as a hormone and regulates mineral concentration in the blood (including calcium).
All of this has much to do with the function of major body functions: the neuromuscular and immune systems as well as gene proliferation. This is the reason for the link between deficiency and cancers.
Is Vitamin D Really That Important?
Of course, many people will have trouble accepting the fact that sun exposure is so important, even as study after study show the importance of vitamin D. Of course, it is up to you, ignore the sun and don’t supplement more than the RDA of the big D if you aren’t worried about:
- Cancer – Research is now estimating that 75% of cancers can be prevented by adequate consumption of vitamin D.
- Calcium Levels – Vitamin D controls calcium and phosphate levels in the blood and contributes to bone growth and bone strength.
- Your Immune System – Ever heard of those “t-cells” that protect your body against bacteria and disease? Vitamin D is crucial in their creation and function.
- Inflammation – Lack of vitamin D can cause inflammation in the body, then again, so can grain consumption. Have joint pain, soreness, or inflammation? Cut the grains and hit the beach!
Other things to remember:
- Vitamin D helps calcium absorption, but make sure you are getting the calcium from diet or supplements.
- Deficiency of magnesium can inhibit vitamin D function, so make sure you get that too!
- Eat proteins and fats.
- Eat limited grains.
- Jump into sun exposure slowly if you aren’t used to it, though many people who switch to a no-grain, no polyunsaturated, or hydrogenated oil diet notice a much higher resistance to the sun.
How to Get Enough Vitamin D
- Spend a safe amount of time in the sun, but optimize your diet and lifestyle to prevent burning and get out of the sun before skin has a chance to burn.
- Use a cover-up or a safe sunscreen for long sun exposure.
- Get blood levels of vitamin D tested and supplement if needed to get levels in optimal range.
- If necessary, use a vitamin D supplement. I use this brand from Radiant Life or this brand with additional vitamin K for absorption.
- Make sure to get enough magnesium as well!
Push Jerk - Build to a heavy set of 3
1,000 Meter Row
21 Deadlifts (135/95)
15 Lateral Barbell Burpees
9 Push Jerks (135/95)