Using the Sun to Boost Your Health

You heard over and over by your mother, your doctor, and the media that too much time in the sun could lead to skin cancer and premature aging. While it is true that excessive UV exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer and potentially add a few wrinkles sooner than later, it turns out that small doses of sunlight are actually essential for your health.

The Benefits of Vitamin D

When you go out in the sun and expose your skin, the sun activates the skin's ability to make vitamin D. The following are some of the many important health benefits of this ellusive vitamin:

  • It helps boost your immune system.
  • It contributes to joint and bone health by helping the body absorb calcium.
  • It has been known to slow the effects of arthritis and lessen back pain in many individuals.
  • Research suggests vitamin D may provide protection from osteoporosis, hypertension, and several autoimmune diseases.
  • Studies have shown that vitamin D can also treat and prevent certain types of cancer.

What's interesting about vitamin D is that it is one of the only vitamins produced naturally by the body. However, in order for the body to produce vitamin D, it has to be exposed to an adequate amount of sunlight. In other words, the body only makes vitamin D in the presence of sunlight.

Spending the Right Amount of Time

Experts say that just ten to 15 minutes of unprotected sunlight (aka no sunblock lotions) a day will help you get your vitamin D boost. However, as we get older, studies show that our bodies becomes less efficient at producing vitamin D, so doctors recommend that older individuals take a vitamin D supplement. Supplements are also recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Be sure to talk to your doctor about what is right for you.

Beware of the Risks

You should never underestimate the danger of too much sun exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States.

There are two main types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinoma. This is the most common. It is easily treatable and not life threatening.
  • Malignant melanoma. This can be deadly unless it is caught and treated early. In 2006 (latest statistic available from the CDC) 53,919 people were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin, and 8,441 people died from it.

Getting Vitamin D from Food

The following foods are a source of vitamin D:

  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Cod Liver Oil
  • Fortified Milk
  • Some breakfast cereals that are fortified with vitamin D (however, this is minimal)

However, studies have shown that it is almost impossible to get enough vitamin D in your diet even if you eat plenty of foods that contain vitamin D. In fact, according to a 2008 report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, as many as half of all adults and children are said to have less than optimum levels of vitamin D, and as many as 10 percent of children are highly deficient. So, the sun really is essential.

Here are some tips to be sun smart.

How to be Sun Smart

By enjoying the sun safely and avoiding sunburn, you can enjoy the beneficial effects of the sun while minimizing your risk of skin cancer.

Here are some tips to be sun smart:

  • Avoid sunburn by staying in the shade during the hottest part of the day (11am-3pm).
  • Use protective clothing, a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen lotions if you are out for more than 10 to 15 minutes.

Bottom Line

If you are spending all of your time indoors and avoiding exposure to the sun, you could be endangering your health. To get the health benefits of the sunshine, go for a short 10 to 15-minute walk in the morning or late afternoon. Be sure to discuss with your doctor whether or not you require a vitamin D supplement as part of your diet.


Looker, Anne C., Pfeiffer, Christine M., Lacher, David, et al. "Serum 25- Hydroxyvitamin D Status of the US Populations: 1988-1994 compared with 2000-244." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Dec. 2008. 88:6, 1519-1527.

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Mayo Clinic Staff. "Skin Cancer." Web. 14 Jun 2010.

Mayo linic Staff. "Vitamin D." Web. 14 Jun 2010.

Parker-Pope, Tara. "Vitamin D, Miracle Drug: Is it Science, or Just Talk?" The New York Times. 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 14 Jun 2010.

"Skin Cancer." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 14 Jun 2010.