Sun Exposure Builds Disease-Preventing Vitamin D

July 13, 2010; 11:41 PM ET
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Your risk of developing Parkinson's disease and certain kinds of cancer may be decreased simply by going to the beach.

Natural sunlight exposure can help build your body's level of vitamin D.

A recent study by Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare, found that over a 30-year time period, individuals with higher concentrations of vitamin D had significantly lower chances of developing Parkinson's disease, compared to individuals with lower levels of vitamin D.

Vitamin D isn't technically a "vitamin" at all. According to Dr. John Cannell, Executive Director of the Vitamin D Council, vitamin D is "a steroid hormone system that begins when the sun strikes the skin."

However, as more and more people work indoors, or seek indoor activities, they diminish their natural exposure to vitamin D through sunlight.

Cannell said, "Vitamin D deficiency is the rule rather than the exception in the American population."

The summer months may be a good time to build up your body's stores of vitamin D. However, how much sun exposure you should get depends on your skin type, as well where you are geographically.

A good rule of thumb, according to Cannell is, "If your shadow is longer than you are, then you're not making much vitamin D."

So even if you spend time outdoors in the morning gardening and take a walk in the evening, you may not be getting enough vitamin D.

The best time to work on getting your vitamin D is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky - solar noon.

Also, while you want to expose as much skin as possible, Cannell said you want to be sure to shade your face and hands, which traditionally get the most sun in your day-to-day life.

Scientifically, the amount of time your skin should be exposed to the sun varies, depending on your skin type. Some very fair people, Cannell said, may only need 1-2 minutes of sun exposure.

"What you want to do," Cannell said, "is expose as much skin as possible at solar noon for about half the time it takes for your skin to become pink. That way you'll always avoid sunburn."

After getting your daily dose of sun exposure, it is important to remember to put sunscreen or protective clothing on.

It is harder to get the appropriate amount of vitamin D naturally in the winter, when days are shorter and when you live at a more northern latitude.

Some signs of a vitamin D deficiency can include headaches, muscle weakness and some forms of depression, among others.

Supplements can be beneficial to people who have a vitamin D deficiency or who live in a region where they have limited sun exposure.

The Vitamin D Council recommends that adults get 5,000 units of vitamin D daily. Cannell said that supplements in this dosage can be found at various retail stores.

Cannell said moderation is important in all things.

"There is increasing evidence that it will help prevent a wide variety of diseases," Cannell said.

Related to the story:

Is Sunscreen Safe?

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