The Benefits of Sunshine


By Atrium Specialist Nutritionist, Debbie O’Neill

Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day.

H.Jackson Brown Jnr

There is something so mood-enhancing when the sun is out and its light is radiating on our skin, giving a boost of endorphins, thereby bringing us much delight.

One of our body’s amazing functions is producing vitamin D when the Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays hit our skin. It is carried down to our liver and then our kidneys, where it is converted to the active form for our body’s utilization.

Having sufficient levels of vitamin D is essential for bone health and for numerous roles involved in the optimal functioning of our body systems. It assists in the gut’s absorption of calcium and in regulating the balance of serum calcium and phosphorus levels, both of which are required for producing and restoring strong bones. It’s involved with nerve function that controls muscle contractions, thereby reducing the negative effects of muscle spasms and cramps. The ‘sunshine vitamin’ also plays a part in reducing inflammation due to its anti-inflammatory properties, and this helps to support the immune system.

Food options containing relatively good amounts of vitamin D include fatty fish such as rainbow trout, salmon, tuna and, also, cod liver oil. Foods such as egg yolk, beef liver, cheese and mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet rays, may have lesser amounts but still good options. Fortification of orange juice, cow’s milk, non-dairy milk alternatives, margarines and cereals are foods which have vitamin D added. Supplementation is worth considering for vegans or vegetarians, as the majority of vitamin D foods are from animal sources.

Vitamin D is a hormone, and the term indicates both D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol). It is a fat-soluble vitamin and requires dietary fat and bile to help with the breaking down and absorption in the small intestine.

There are varied factors which can cause vitamin D deficiency:

  • Dietary intake of vitamin D rich foods is insufficient or lacking.
  • Sunlight exposure is inadequate or not recommended.
  • Inflammatory gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn’s, Cystic Fibrosis and Ulcerative Colitis which can cause poor absorption of fat.
  • People who have undergone gastric bypass surgery and the upper part of the small intestine is removed (this is where vitamin D is absorbed).
  • Geographical location and the distance from the equator determine the amount of sufficient sunlight and the body’s ability to produce vitamin D.
  • Kidney or liver diseases can affect the conversion of vitamin D’s active form.

Population groups:

  • Skin colour can affect the body’s ability to produce vitamin D. The darker the skin, the higher concentration of pigmentation which can lessen the ability of the skin production of vitamin D.
  • The elderly who are in care homes or facilities because their skin’s ability to produce vitamin D decreases. 
  • Individuals who don coverings due to religious or cultural reasons.

Severe deficiency of vitamin D causes osteomalacia in adults, posing higher risks for fractures and causing rickets in children, a bone deformity due to soft bones. These conditions occur when there is a reduced capacity of intestinal absorption of calcium and an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus levels causing muscle weakness, and the demineralization of the bone causing it to break down. Mood disorders such as depressive symptoms or seasonal affective disorder can also affect certain individuals due to deficiencies.

To determine whether you have adequate levels of Vitamin D, speak to your GP about a simple blood test that measures serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) units.

Keep in mind, the fact remains that overexposure of UVB can lead to skin cancers and precaution must be taken when sitting out in the sun for prolonged periods.