How to balance vitamin D with staying sun smart

Sunlight is our best source of vitamin D. But can you get enough while keeping protected against the sun’s harmful rays?

It feels like a catch22 – direct sunlight is our body’s primary source of vitamin D, yet we’re advised to be vigilant about sun protection.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates 23 per cent of Australian adults are vitamin D deficient, revealing many of us are still unsure how much sun is good for us.

How Vitamin D boosts our body

Vitamin D is vital for supporting the absorption of calcium for healthy teeth and bones, for a healthy nervous system and to keep your immune system working properly.

Australasian College of Dermatologists fellow Dr Adam Sheridan says this includes “a critical role in calcium absorption and the formation and maintenance of healthy bones and bone density”.

“Appropriate vitamin D levels also contribute to immune function as well as supporting healthy mood against lethargy and depression.”

How to get enough vitamin D

So how much sun exposure is needed to get your vitamin D fix?

Cancer Council Australia representative Heather Walker says the absorption process is efficient.

“Most Australians will get adequate vitamin D through regular incidental exposure to the sun, especially in summer,” she says.

The body can only absorb a limited amount of vitamin D at a time.

But Dr Sheridan says people at higher risks of vitamin D deficiency may require slightly longer sun exposure, such as darker skin types, those who regularly wearing covered clothing or those spending prolonged periods indoors.

“In these instances, 15 minutes of exposure in the late afternoon three times a week is a safe means of boosting natural vitamin D production,” Dr Sheridan says.

Sun safety and vitamin D

Sun protection measures are recommended if you intend on being outside for longer than just a few minutes, particularly when UV index levels are above 3.

“Slip on protective clothing, slop on sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher), slap on a wide-brim hat, seek shade and slide on sunglasses,” Heather says.

But to ensure adequate vitamin D levels are achieved, Heather says sun protection may not be necessary “during autumn and winter if you live in an area where the UV Index falls below 3”.

Alternative sources of level D and how to check your levels

Besides sunlight, Dr Sheridan says alternative vitamin D sources include nutritional supplements or foods including salmon, tuna, sardines, beef and eggs.

However these alone cannot provide an adequate amount of vitamin D.

If you have concerns about your vitamin D levels, it’s important to speak to a health professional.

“Health issues like frequent infections, inflammatory skin disease, low energy, muscle aches, cramps or depressed mood may be suggestive of low vitamin D levels,” says Dr Sheridan.

“A blood test is the best measure of your personal vitamin D level.”

Written by Sharon Hunt.