By Laurie Heilman Bell
For many centuries, people have worshipped the sun in ways ranging from austere religious rites to leisurely sunbathing. Interestingly, it seems to be the legacy of our time to assign our brightest light in the universe a dark reputation as a harmful entity. While the sun certainly can cause harm, humans have evolved to depend on the sun. Among the sun’s benefits is its ability to trigger our production of vitamin D upon contact with our skin. Recently, vitamin D has been receiving a great deal of attention over both its benefits and our widespread deficiency. This deficiency might most accurately be described as a “re-emergence” since rickets, a childhood condition where vitamin D deficiency leads to poor bone development, was rampant in the early to mid 20th century. Practices such as the consumption of cod liver oil and the fortification of milk successfully addressed this major public health concern, but concerns over vitamin D deficiency are rising once again.
While we are all prone to vitamin D deficiency simply by living in Canada, where our higher latitudes and colder climate reduce our exposure to the sun, those who are at particular risk include those who may not spend adequate time outdoors (e.g. the elderly, the infirm), those who are always covered by clothing or sunscreen while outdoors, and those with darker skin. While we may also receive vitamin D from food, we have seen many changes in our dietary practices that have reduced our intake. The consumption of vitamin D fortified milk has been declining in favour of other non fortified beverages such as juice, soft drinks and coffee. Cod liver oil is no longer commonly consumed and now even fish itself is the center of concern over mercury toxicity. Eggs, specifically vitamin D rich egg yolks, fell from popularity when overblown fears over dietary cholesterol first arose.
While vitamin D deficiency has been primarily associated with rickets, current research is associating it with serious diseases such as osteoporosis, certain types of cancer and multiple sclerosis. While the Canadian Cancer Society is now suggesting that adults supplement with 1000IU per day, these fearsome diseases might also benefit from a lessening of our fears over the many important sources of vitamin D. When it comes to sun exposure we do not need to adopt the life of a vampire. Simply plan ahead and exercise common sense when sun exposure is prolonged or the UV index is high. There’s no need to dread cod liver oil as the poor quality products that your parents and grandparents choked down have been replaced by an abundance of highly palatable fish oil supplements, manufactured in a variety of flavours and with close attention to purity and the prevention of rancidity. Choosing beverages like fortified milk and milk alternatives in place of juice, soft drinks and coffee can raise vitamin D intake (and possibly reduce your sugar and caffeine intake too!). Unless told otherwise by your doctor, put eggs back on the menu (poached and hard boiled are best). Visit Health Canada’s website for current information on what fish species are recognized as safe to consume. If you would rather not guess at your intake or risk inadequate intake, there are many inexpensive, standardized supplements on the market. Even though Canadians may not be blessed with adequate year round sunlight, with a little effort we can still manage to bless our health with adequate amounts of the sunshine vitamin.
*This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. For any health related concerns, please consult your doctor. Community Natural Foods and all of its associates shall not be held accountable for how this information is perceived or utilized.
Laurie Heilman Bell RHN is a freelance writer for Community Natural Foods