The following post explains the case for vitamin D &  why you need the sun in your life.

Vitamin D – What Women Know

Women often know more about the importance of Vitamin D than men do. But they find out too late!

Vitamin D comes from the sun.

For centuries, doctors used “sun therapy” (e.g. allowing sunlight to touch bare skin) to treat rickets – the softening of bones in children. Children in northern climates (say Scandinavia) were fed cod liver oil, one of the only foods that has Vitamin D in it among other vitamins.

As women age, they often experience the weakening of bones more so than men. This might be a result of inherent differences in physical structure between men & women.  Historically, men have done more weight bearing activities (lift things). Men have also spent more time outside working (sun exposure).

On the other hand, women are more likely to stay indoors. Many develop porous bones (holes in bone structure) as they age. This all too common condition is called osteoporosis.

Unfortunately, women learn about the Vitamin D -bone connection when they experience bone loss– not before!

While it’s possible to strengthen bones once bone loss has occurred, it takes more work. Why do more work later on when you can do a small bit of work now?

Vitamin D, not just for Women – What Men Should Know

Recent research released by the Vitamin D Council shows that Vitamin D is much more than a vitamin. In fact, at optimal levels Vitamin D turns into a hormone that goes into cells and essentially fixes damage. Vitamin D has been shown to improve immunity, circulation, muscular function , respiration, and brain development.

Vitamin D =  a superhero

vitamin dphotocredit compfight via susanne

What Does Ayurveda Say?

Ayurveda simply says – you need sunlight for vitality. It doesn’t have to be warm outside. You need sun independent of the weather. Morning to mid-morning sun is the most helpful. After lunch, the sun may be too strong. The evening sun may be too weak.

Your skin will tell you when you’ve had too much sun. Skin will turn red & peel if you are light-skinned or get splotchy and discolored with dark spots if you are dark-skinned. This is too late. 

Before this point, you will see your body turn a slight shade darker and feel thirsty. This is when you get out of the sun and find shade.

For light-skinned people, it’s around 15-20 minutes of bare skin exposure a day (bare arms and legs, no sunglasses, no sunscreen ). For dark-skinned people, double the time to 40 minutes. Everyone will be different and must adjust to what’s tolerable. You need less sun exposure at higher altitudes because the sun is stronger.

The original remedy for sun damage? Take aloe vera gel with meals or apply it topically. This is a fairly common remedy in the West now. It’s origin is Ayurveda.

The Big Picture 

When I first started writing about the 5 natural elements of Ayurveda, my scientist friends would groan. They wanted me to pinpoint vitamins, minerals, and Western organs. There is a field called  integrative science. Researchers translate ancient forms of medicine into modern science. It’s useful, and I do hope it gets the funding it deserves.

Before I saw Ayurveda save people’s lives, I also rolled my eyes when an Ayurvedic doctor told me there was too much fire in my body. After all, I was trained as an economist who eventually  made career out of seeing trends in numbers. How can you quantify the amount of “fire” in my body?

What I realize now is simple – ancient people have always connected to the natural world. They used the language of the natural world to talk about the body. They observed how nature affected their bodies and developed their own way of describing health and disease. They got very detailed – organs, organ pathways, etc,– over time but in the details, they never lost sight of the big picture:  the natural world.

It’d be inappropriate to hate on another world language e.g. knock Spanish but praise English.  In the same respect, it’s unhelpful to hate on the language of the past. Instead, we must think – in all this talk about the body and natural world are we missing a fundamental concept that our ancestors knew?

Explaining the sun seemed futile to our ancestors. They knew clearly that the sun sustained life but they also observed that too much sun could be harmful. They decided to spend their time learning the rules of the sun so that they could work with it harmoniously. Current science distills  large macro concepts into a test-tube or model. While this is helpful for our understanding of the world, the most important concepts (e.g. sun = vitality) should not be missed.

Does Daily Sun Exposure Really Work?

I can talk about my experience. A few years ago I had a very low Vitamin D count. An Ayurvedic doctor noticed this based on his testing of my body (eyes, tongue, skin, organ palpitation, etc). I verified this diagnosis with a Vitamin D test. I had a score of 25 ng/ml. The suggested Vitamin D range for proper immunity is 50ng/ml – 80ng/ml.

I knew I could take a Vitamin D3 supplement which is what most people with low Vitamin D in cold areas do.

But I wondered Can I just use the sun to heal?

I moved to LA, and if I wasn’t working in LA, I was home in Houston, Texas. I know it’s not a possibility for everyone so I will include what to consider if you live in a place with less sun below.

For at least 4 out of the 7 days in a week, I went outside at 10AM for 40 minutes. It wasn’t 15 -20 minutes because I have dark skin.  If I was at a client office, I took my cardigan over my dress off & went outside. (Men would have to roll up their sleeves and pant legs). I scheduled most of my catch-up  phone calls between 10AM and 11AM. I just did them outside.  If I was working from my home office, I’d go outside in shorts and a tank top.

I realize this schedule seems unreasonable, but I made a choice to do this one year experiment. I wanted to see if I could work with the sun and plan everything else around it. It was an entirely new approach to life for me – to plan life based on wellness.

What Happened after a Year of Daily Sun Exposure?

My Vitamin D level went from  25ng/ml to 70ng/ml.

I never got a cold , which I used to get once a year regardless of climate (better immunity?). My hands and feet felt less cold (better circulation?). I could bear lifting some weights (better strength?). When I revisited yoga, I could balance on my own weight better than before (better balance and coordination?)

At this time, I had only gradually implemented some Ayurvedic changes (namely I drank more water because I spent more time in the sun).  Sunlight was a major part of my healing.

My experiment was not perfect. It would have been smart for me to run a control test with another girl my age  and skin tone with low vitamin D who decided not do anything. I couldn’t find such girl. Plus, if I knew someone had low vitamin D, I would have wanted her to take action.

Now,  even controlled medical studies are finding the immune benefits of  Vitamin D.

Uh, That’s Great but What do I do Here in NYC? 

***I take the case of NYC because it’s the most extreme. Few people have a front or back yard in NYC. All outdoor activities are in public.

  1. Get Your Vitamin D Levels tested either now or at your next annual physical. You can get Vitamin D tests independent of your doctor when you search online.
    – – I went through my doctor. Sometimes you have to fight for the test because testing is less about what you need and more about what insurance covers :(. Pay for the test.
    – – Yes, a good Ayurvedic doctor can tell you about your deficiencies but there are few well-trained ones around. Less than demand. The field is growing in the West, however.
  2. Some Doctors will say you’re ok if you’re at the low-end of the lab reported range 25ng/ml. The Vitamin D Council and many leading physicians believe you need more like 50ng/ml – 80ng/ml.
  3. Consider your options: daily sunlight (best), sun lamps, D3 supplementation, cod liver oil. The fortified Vitamin D in milk isn’t usually enough & there are serious quality issues with gallon milk in the US. This has led to the organic and grass-fed cow milk movements.
    –  – I opted for daily sunlight. When I travel,  I supplement D3. Take the recommend amount of D3 — like any medicine don’t overdose. I take Vitamin D3 supplements with my heaviest meal – lunch. I eat more natural fat at lunch which helps with Vitamin D absorption. Some science indicates you don’t need to take as much Vitamin D3 if you take it with a natural fat (avocados, coconut oil, ghee, etc).
    – -I go for a liquid D3 supplement because liquids absorb easier in the body. I make sure there is no added sugar because that would not help. I am not tied to any brands. Your doctor should help you figure out the “IU” amount you need a day – usually over 1,000 IU if not more.
    – – I  ruled out cod liver oil because I could never figure out how clean it was. Fish oil tends to go rancid when packaged. It’s also considerably more expensive. I think people who find a high quality cod liver oil might prefer a natural option. It just did not appeal to me.
    – – I ‘ve read about sun lamps. I haven’t tried them. They might be better than supplementation but it took some time for the costs to come down. Now, I think you can get a lamp instead of a sunbed.
  4. Even if you live in a less sunny place, go outside everyday to stand, if just for a moment. The sun is there – albeit hidden. While you might not get the Vitamin D you need that day, I believe there’s a lot more to the sun than just Vitamin D. Science hasn’t distilled it yet, and the ancients just trusted in the Sun.

Shouldn’t I protect myself from the Sun?

You protect yourself from over-exposure to the sun. Your skin will tell you what to do.  You still need a minimum daily fill of the sun – if you can get it. Otherwise, you supplement if you show low levels of Vitamin D. Some people metabolize Vitamin D better than others.

The most natural form of protection is simple – shade. However, if you’re outside a lot during sunny months, wearing a hat and white clothing helps.  This is crucial when you’re at high altitudes because the sun is stronger higher up.

If you rely on sunscreen, apply it after you’ve gotten your “daily fill of the sun.”

There’s a lot of controversy over the sunscreen. Standard sunscreens use chemicals( Octinoxate, Octisalate, Oxybenzone or Homosalate) that are hormone or endocrine disrupters to the body. It must be cheaper to produce.

There are lines of natural sunscreens that use zinc oxide or titanium oxides  but consumer behavior needs to shift too. Natural sunscreen needs to reapplied more often than standard sunscreen or it doesn’t work as well.  It’s trade-off–chemicals vs. work. Zinc & titanium oxides can look really grainy and white, which is why natural sunscreen companies are getting better about mixing it with better moisturizers . Currently, the scientific literature says both zinc and titanium oxide  are safe and don’t readily penetrate the skin barrier. Here’s what the Environmental Working Group summarized.

In Ayurveda, neem oil mixed with a little moisturizing coconut oil is recommended for sun protection. In Africa, the locals use shea butter. There needs to be more testing on how well neem oil and shea butter work as a sun protectant for lighter-skinned people.

About Doctors

Doctors should be your teachers. After all, PHDs (or doctors), mainly research and teach.  The medical industry is very hard on  good doctors. Doctors have to deal with the monster that is insurance.  There are too many sick people for doctors to spend enough time teaching. Med school did not teach doctors about nutrition and daily lifestyle. I think med school curriculum is designed assuming people learned about nutrition and daily lifestyle from their families. But even among families (especially as our grandparents stopped living with us) that knowledge is getting displaced by the short-term nature of desire. Win now. Sleep When You’re Dead.

While things are changing in response to how sick people are, it is slow.

Given the choices, I’d rather learn about the simple things my body needs and work up from there. This does not mean I shun medical counsel – I go to both doctors and “alternative” doctors. However, they cannot be with me 24/7 to tell me what’s happening inside of me. Plus, they won’t always be right.

I have no other option than to find the least common denominator in health and  work my way up. That’s what Ayurveda does for me. I learn about lifestyle choices and body types. I learn how to simplify when people miss the big picture.

I hope this post and the broader  BWT blog helps you, too.

With Warmth,