In this interview with the late Dr. Robert Heaney, Creighton University professor of medicine and renowned researcher in the field of bone biology and vitamin D,1 he admits that an embarrassing secret in the field of nutrition is the lack of knowledge of what is really normal.
When the approach to measuring vitamin intake is determining the amount needed to avoid triggering a disease or establishing the highest amount before you experience toxicity, then you don’t achieve what is optimal to support biological function.
Vitamin D is a steroid hormone your body produces with the help of cholesterol when you’re exposed to the sun. This critical nutrient interacts with a number of different systems in your body and is vital to cell DNA expression. One of the best ways to optimize your blood level is to get sensible sun exposure, taking great care to never get burned.
Although deficiency is very common, not only in the U.S. but also around the world, many believe they are not at risk simply because they eat foods fortified with vitamin D. With advancing technology and research it has become clear vitamin D deficiency is rampant and significantly impacts the development of several health conditions and chronic diseases.
In fact, research estimates2 85 percent of children in industrial cities, and well over half of adults and the elderly, suffer from vitamin D deficiency. Lack of sun exposure has likely been driven by the fear of developing skin cancer. However, office workers actually develop melanoma at greater rates than those who spend more time outdoors.3
Office Work May Increase Risk of Malignant Melanoma
For decades, the message from the medical community has been to avoid direct sun exposure and apply sunscreen when spending any amount of time outdoors. Australia’s long public campaign4 to curb skin cancer rates has resulted in 31 percent of Australian adults being deficient in vitamin D, which in turn is linked with a number of deadly conditions, including cancer.
The application of SPF 30 can reduce the production of vitamin D by 97 percent. However, while it’s important to reduce your potential for sunburn, it’s been known since the 1970s that office workers have a higher risk of malignant melanoma than those who work outdoors.
Interestingly, melanoma appears on body parts that don’t usually see much sun but which occasionally get burned, such as men’s torsos or the back of women’s legs.5 In one population-based, case-controlled study, researchers found a pattern of significantly increased risk of melanoma for lesions on the trunk of individuals who reported using sunscreen to enable them to spend more time sunbathing.6
When outside, you’re exposed to the full spectrum of ultraviolet (UV) rays, including UVA and UVB. UVB light is necessary for your body to produce vitamin D and often affects only the superficial layers of your skin. UVA rays, on the other hand, will penetrate deep into the dermis and may lead to premature skin aging and suppression of your immune system.7
The differentiation between UVA and UVB light is where the light waves fall on the light wavelength spectrum. One reason why office workers may be at higher risk for developing malignant melanoma is their exposure to UVA wavelengths filtered through office windows.
Windows block UVB light but allow UVA through. A secondary reason may be that those who work in offices spend more time outside on holidays and weekends, resulting in burns, laying the groundwork for skin cancer.8 The World Health Organization (WHO) states:9
“Exposure during childhood is thought to be more important than exposure later in life. Tumor development may be linked to occasional exposure to short periods of intense sunlight, such as at weekends or on holiday. The higher incidence of malignant melanoma in indoor workers compared to outdoor workers supports that notion.”
Total Sun Spectrum Is Beneficial to Health
Scientists are just beginning to understand the many ways sun exposure is vital to human health. In an interview with Alexander Wunsch, Ph.D., world class expert on photobiology,10 he explains:11
“Sunlight induces coordinated endocrine adaptation effects. It affects sympathetic and parasympathetic activity, and is a major circadian and seasonal stimulus for the body clock … Our system, via the eyes and via the skin, detects the colors of the light in the environment in order to adapt the hormonal system to the specific needs of the time and place.
It’s different if we are sitting under the sun in the desert, or if we are sitting under a leaf roof or under a tree somewhere in the woods. The colors around us tell, through the eye, to our brain, to the midbrain [and] to the hormonal steering centers, what happens around us and what is to do in order to cope with this particular situation.”
Given the many benefits of sun exposure, the WHO’s classification of sunlight as a carcinogen (and recommendation to avoid the sun) is akin to saying oxygen may cause cancer because it’s the precursor molecule for free radicals, so we should all stop breathing, according to Wunsch.
It’s becoming clear regular exposure to full spectrum light is necessary and beneficial for most people, and public health would be better served by helping people understand the optimal “dose” needed, rather than telling them to shun all sun exposure.
Although abnormally high amounts of UVA exposure damages your skin, sensible sun exposure to UVA helps produce nitric oxide, which relaxes your arterial system and normalizes your blood pressure. In turn, high blood pressure (hypertension) is linked to coronary artery disease, aneurysm, heart failure, stroke and dementia.12
Importance of Vitamin D to Your Overall Health
In the past, vitamin D was recognized as the treatment for rickets, and later for osteomalacia (softening of the bones). Today, much of the attention on the benefits of vitamin D has focused on the prevention of colds and illnesses. However, vitamin D is a micronutrient vital to the functioning of each cell.
As Heaney describes, when you don’t have enough of a micronutrient it impacts the optimal functioning of every cell. What scientists have learned in the past 10 years is the critical role the active form of vitamin D plays in making DNA available to the cell to create proteins and enzymes needed to function.
When your vitamin D level falls, it impacts how the cell functions. More immediately, you may experience a decline in immune competence, balance or bone strength. However, in the long term, vitamin D is responsible for number of crucial functions, including regulating the absorption of dietary calcium and phosphorus.
These nutrients are essential for bone health and neuromuscular activity. A study led by Arash Hossein-Nezhad, Ph.D., professor of endocrinology at Boston University,13 found adults who increase their vitamin D during the winter months enhanced the function of nearly 300 genes and circulating immune cells that control more than 800 biological processes and help repair DNA.14
These functions also help promote the death of precancerous cells and improve immune function. When vitamin D is at a suboptimal level, it increases the risk of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, stroke, depression, schizophrenia and tuberculosis. Deficiencies are more apt to occur at higher latitudes and during the winter months when the angle of the sun is oblique.15
Vitamin D Toxicity Is Relatively Rare
A collaborative study16 between Duke University and the National University of Singapore found low levels of vitamin D also increased the risk of cognitive decline and mental impairment. However, while the benefits of optimal vitamin D levels are many, it’s nearly impossible to get enough sunlight all year-round in the Northern Hemisphere in order to meet your needs.
Residents of the British Isles are in a similar situation, where the sun is a relatively rare commodity. Public Health England17 recently issued a report recommending citizens take a vitamin D supplement, where before only at-risk individuals and children under 5 were given this recommendation.
Since each person absorbs and activates vitamin D differently, it’s impossible to recommend one supplemental dose for everyone over the winter months to achieve an optimal blood level of 60 ng/ml to 80 ng/ml.
The only way to assess your ideal dose is to monitor your serum vitamin D. This is easily done with a simple blood test, available at most labs and/or from GrassrootsHealth. While it’s important to take enough, it’s unlikely you’ll take too much unless you take more than 30,000 IU per day.
Vitamin D affects your serum calcium levels, which is how the Institute of Medicine defines vitamin D toxicity. According to Heaney, there is a wide margin of safety. For instance, in measuring blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D, there are no recorded problems at levels of 200 ng/ml and below. To achieve this serum level you need to be take greater than 30,000 IU per day.
While it is difficult to achieve vitamin D toxicity, you may suffer negative effects if you don’t also maintain a healthy balance with other nutrients. If you take high doses of vitamin D3, remember to also boost your intake of vitamin K2 and calcium through food and/or a supplement, and get your vitamin D level tested to be sure you’re safely within the therapeutic range.
Magnesium is another nutrient important to the optimization of vitamin D. You can learn more about this in my previous article, “Without Magnesium, Vitamin D Supplementation May Backfire.”
Fluorescent Lighting in the Office Affects Your Health
Many offices are turning to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) in an effort to reduce energy expenditure. However, the low levels of energy and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted may damage your health. A study from Stony Brook University finds UV radiation seeping through CFLs may damage skin cells.18
The research was sparked after the lead researcher read an article in an Israeli newspaper reporting a spike in skin cancer on a communal farm after residents switched to CFLs.19 Disturbing evidence had also surfaced in the European Union literature indicating exposure to CFL bulbs may be responsible for photodermatosis and skin cancer in humans.
CFL bulbs work by using electricity to excite mercury vapor, emitting UV light, which is absorbed by the bulbs’ phosphor coating, converting the energy to visible light. In comparison to standard fluorescent tubes, CFLs create more space where UV light can escape when the phosphor coating chips.
Researchers studied keratinocytes from the outermost layer of skin and dermal fibroblasts forming the connective tissue. Although all of the bulbs tested had some emissions, some were worse than others. Under lab conditions, the cells on the skin stopped growing and changed shape.20 Andrew Goldsworthy, Ph.D., biologist from the Imperial College in London writes:21
“The symptoms of exposure to CFL radiation are remarkably similar to those reported by electrosensitive individuals when exposed to pulsed electromagnetic fields. Since the lamps do not flash, it seems probable that they are a direct effect of the pulsed radiation on the brain and nervous system.
The magnetic component of the radiation is the more dangerous because it can penetrate deep into the human body where it generates electrical voltages proportional to its rate of change. The rapid rise and fall times of these magnetic pulses can therefore give relatively massive and potentially damaging voltage spikes both in living cells and across their membranes.”
EMF is emitted from baby monitors, cellphones, cordless phones, Wi-Fi routers, smart meters and other wireless devices and causes serious mitochondrial dysfunction due to free radical damage. For a discussion of how electromagnetic fields affect your cells and your health, see my previous article, “Reduce EMF Exposure.”
Are You Sensitive to Fluorescent Light?
Environmental factors may trigger stress reactions, nervous system dysregulation or physical sensitivities, including exposure to CFLs. These light bulbs have become increasingly ubiquitous as proponents argue they save energy. However, if these energy efficient bulbs increase mental and physical disease burden, the collective cost may far outweigh any savings.
Although stress reactions to CFLs are likely triggered by several factors, one issue is the blue light emitted, which stimulate nonvisual pathways from the eye and affect your circadian rhythms, arousal level and muscle tension.
Compared to incandescent lighting, CFLs demonstrate the ability to raise stress markers, blood pressure and reduce a drop in temperature during sleep, significantly affecting your quality of sleep.22
There have also been a handful of studies indicating an increase in repetitive behaviors in children suffering from autism23 or hyperactivity24 when they are exposed to fluorescent versus incandescent lighting. It’s important to note the researchers found immediate effects and were not evaluating long-term cumulative effects as would occur from stimulation over time.
For all of these reasons, I recommend using incandescent lightbulbs in your officer and living spaces, reserving CFLs and LEDs for areas where you don’t spend any significant amount of time, such as in hallways, the garage or in porch lights. To learn more about healthy lighting, see “How LED Lighting May Compromise Your Health.”
Also remember that sensible sun exposure (and/or a vitamin D3 supplement when sun exposure is not feasible) may actually lower your risk of several types of cancer, including the most lethal form of skin cancer.