CHICAGO — Many of us slather on the sunblock before heading out each day to prevent the growth of skin cancers, but a recent study finds that sunscreen use is also causing an alarming surge in cases of vitamin D deficiency worldwide.
Almost 1 billion people worldwide are impacted by vitamin D deficiency — that’s roughly 1 in 7 people — according to a clinical review by the American Osteopathic Association. The deficiency also affects 95% of African American adults.
A lack of vitamin D, sometimes referred to as the “sunshine vitamin,” which our bodies naturally produce when our skin is exposed to sunlight, puts us at risk for several health problems. Conversely, getting an adequate daily dose is important for overall health. It is involved in cell growth, muscle movement and the immune system.
Indoor lifestyles are one risk factor as is the overuse of sunscreens. Sunscreens of SPF 15 or higher reduce the ability of our skin to produce vitamin D3 by 99%. African Americans are at risk for vitamin D deficiency because darker skin has higher levels of melanin, which works like a natural sunscreen.
“People are spending less time outside and, when they do go out, they’re typically wearing sunscreen, which essentially nullifies the body’s ability to produce vitamin D,” says researcher Dr. Kim Pfotenhauer, an assistant professor at Touro University, in a news release. “While we want people to protect themselves against skin cancer, there are healthy, moderate levels of unprotected sun exposure that can be very helpful in boosting vitamin D.”
Certain chronic diseases — type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, celiac disease and Crohn’s Disease –can lower the body’s ability to process and absorb vitamin D from food sources, thus causing a deficiency.
When our bodies lack vitamin D, we may see symptoms like muscle weakness and fragile bones. People who are experiencing these symptoms or those who have chronic diseases may want to see their doctor to have their levels tested and to come up with a treatment plan.
Some natural food sources for the vitamin include fatty fish, cheese and egg yolks. Fortified foods include milk, breakfast cereals and Portobello mushrooms. Supplements also work well with few risks, says Pfotenhauer, but should be taken under a doctor’s direction.
While food sources help to boost healthy vitamin D levels, one of the easiest ways to reach this goal is to step outside around lunchtime for five to 30 minutes twice a week. The amount of time would depend on location and skin pigmentation — lighter skin needs less time than darker skin to produce the vitamin. The important point is to leave off the sunscreen for these sessions.
“You don’t need to go sunbathing at the beach to get the benefits,” adds Pfotenhauer. “A simple walk with arms and legs exposed is enough for most people.”
These findings are from a clinical review published earlier this year in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.