Vitamin D is sometimes called the sunshine vitamin because it is produced naturally by the body when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays (UVB) from sunlight. Vitamin D can also be taken as a supplement at an affordable cost. Recent research has shown that vitamin D plays an extremely important role in chronic pain and that 70% Americans are vitamin D deficient. Increasing your vitamin D levels can also positively impact many other health conditions.
Studies have shown that an inadequate level of vitamin D is associated with nonspecific musculoskeletal pain (pain without evidence of injury, disease, or anatomical or neurological defect), nonspecific bone and joint pain, fatigue, muscle weakness, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid disorders, headaches, cardiovascular disorders, immune disorders, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. Low vitamin D concentrations are also associated with inflammation, diabetes, infectious diseases, multiple sclerosis, declining cognitive function, physical functional impairment, most types of cancer and mortality from all causes.
Many studies have also documented a reduction in pain when vitamin D supplements have been given to people in chronic pain. Improvements were sometimes seen within a few weeks with administration of high doses.
Getting Your Vitamin D Free From the Sun
Our skin naturally makes vitamin D when exposed to the sun. This is the optimum time of year to take advantage of this in the northern hemisphere, since for most of the year in most of North America, the sun is not direct enough to promote vitamin D synthesis.
The medical community has provided much misinformation about sun exposure, which has resulted in most people being afraid of the sun. We’ve been warned not to go out in the sun without sunscreen, for fear of skin cancer. However, the incidence of the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, is actually reduced by sun exposure, as is the prevalence of most other cancers, including breast cancer, pancreatic cancers, colorectal cancer and blood cancers.
Our bodies cannot manufacture vitamin D when our skin is covered with sunscreen. A general often cited recommendation of 15 minutes of sun exposure daily without sunscreen may be adequate for fair skinned people under ideal conditions. However, dark skinned people may need exposure up to 10 times longer. Exposure time needed is also increased by distance from the equator, cloudy conditions, time of day, older age and the presence of smog. Sunlight exposure through a window screens out the UVB rays needed for vitamin D synthesis while still allowing the more damaging UVA rays.
One guideline for how long to stay out is how long it takes for the skin to become slightly pink (erythema), which indicates an optimal dose of UV and vitamin D has been received.
Sun exposure also has other benefits that are unrelated to vitamin D production, including enhancing mood and energy through the release of endorphins, protecting against and suppressing symptoms of multiple sclerosis, treating skin diseases such as psoriasis, relieving fibromyalgia pain, wound healing, cardiovascular protection and melatonin regulation.
Be aware that some medications can cause oversensitivity to sun exposure, including rashes and sunburn with even limited exposure. These medications include antihistamines, antibiotics, oral contraceptives and estrogens, major tranquilizers, tricylic antidepressants, sulfur drugs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and some oral anti-diabetics. Use extra caution if you’re taking these types of drugs.
Vitamin D Supplementation, an Affordable Option
When it’s not possible to generate adequate vitamin D levels with sun exposure, supplementation is generally recommended. While there are some foods that contain vitamin D, including fatty fish, organ meats and egg yolks, it is usually not possible to get adequate levels of vitamin D from diet.
Vitamin D supplements are generally readily available and inexpensive. Vitamin D3 is the natural form of the vitamin and is more absorbable than the synthetic form, vitamin D2. Recommendations for supplementation vary, with experts recommending somewhere between 2000 and 5000 IU/day.
When supplementing, or to find out your initial vitamin D status, a simple blood test can tell you your vitamin D levels and help you maintain an ideal range. The best test is the 25(OH)D or hydroxyvitamine D test. Optimal levels are between 40-70 ng/ml, with under 32 ng/ml levels considered deficient.