Whether you’re dreaming of summer sunshine and beachside vacations or actually soaking up the sun, it’s always a good time to talk about Vitamin D. It’s especially important because it’s a nutrient that new moms are often deficient in. This fat-soluble vitamin can be found in most coldwater fish – such as mackerel, salmon and cod – and also in fortified milk. However, the amounts of Vitamin D in these foods are fairly small, so you’d need to eat a lot of them to get a sufficient dose. That’s why we want to talk about the best – and most enjoyable – source of Vitamin D: natural sunlight.
In colder climates with less annual sun exposure the risk of Vitamin D deficiency is higher, because you’re not able to get adequate amounts of daily sunlight. Additionally, during pregnancy and when breastfeeding, your baby will be pulling from your Vitamin D stores – so you’re more likely to be low on it yourself. Plus, in those busy first few weeks as a new mom, you may not be getting outside as much as you normally would – which is why it’s so important to focus on this vital nutrient.
So, we’re answering some of the big questions when it comes to the benefits of Vitamin D, how we get it from sunlight, and how to stay safe while soaking up the sun.
1. Why do we need Vitamin D?
It allows for gut absorption of calcium, which has countless functions in the body. Vitamin D also maintains a normal balance of calcium and phosphorous in the blood. This makes it vital to the formation and maintenance of strong bones and teeth, healthy heart function, and a strong immune system.
2. Am I likely to be deficient?
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you are at an increased risk of Vitamin D deficiency – but that doesn’t mean you are Vitamin D deficient. It does mean that you should be aware of your intake of this nutrient, and make efforts to get it from food where possible, and from regular, safe sun exposure (we’ll talk about that in a bit). There is also a higher risk for Vitamin D deficiency if you are overweight or obese or live in an area with less sun exposure.
3. How much Vitamin D do we actually need?
During pregnancy and lactation, you need to supply baby with adequate Vitamin D while making sure you get enough yourself. While the numbers tend to vary, the general recommendation during pregnancy and when breastfeeding is around 4,000 IU per day.
Okay… so what does IU mean? You’re probably used to seeing nutrient RDA’s in some variation of milligrams (mg) or micrograms (µg) per day – and even that’s hard to conceptualize. For a quick explanation: IU stands for international units, which is basically the amount of a vitamin needed to produce its biological effect. For a practical explanation: for someone with a fair skin tone, 10 minutes in the summer sun without SPF on can produce around 10,000 IUs of Vitamin D.
4. So, how does the sun give us Vitamin D?
We actually have the starting material for this nutrient right under our skin. We just need something with enough energy to activate it. That’s where sunlight comes in. When UVB rays hit our skin, it converts an existing substance to Vitamin D3, which can be activated and utilized by our body. It basically boils down to this: more time in the sun means more Vitamin D.
Keep in mind that if you wear full-body coverings when outside, or if you have darker skin tones, your skin won’t be able to utilize the UV rays as well, so it will take longer for your body to make Vitamin D. If you have very fair skin, you’ll need much less time outside as your body will utilize the UVB rays very quickly.
5. How can we stay safe in the sun while making sure we get enough Vitamin D?
The best way to get good Vitamin D is by spending time in natural sunlight without sunscreen on. Yes, you read that right – without sunscreen on. We’re huge proponents of safe sunscreen use when you have to be outside for a long time, but covering yourself in sunscreen from head to toe before venturing outdoors will block your skin from the UV rays it needs to make Vitamin D.
Sun rays are strongest in the summer months between the hours of 11am and 2pm – and only 10 minutes in the sun without SPF during this time should give you your daily recommended amount. This is also a short enough time period where you won’t be likely to burn either.
You should know that you aren’t at risk of overdosing on Vitamin D from sun exposure. But more time in the sun without SPF or proper coverings will lead to sunburn and irreversible skin damage. This should be taken very seriously, as it drastically increases your risk of melanoma (skin cancer). After a few minutes of getting your Vitamin D fix, it’s important to do the following:
- Cover up with clothes to provide extra protection from UV rays
- Find shade to relax in, out of direct sunlight – especially if during peak sun hours
- Apply a safe and effective sunscreen to any exposed areas of skin, and reapply every 2 hours at least
- Wear UV-blocking sunglasses – your eyes need protection too!
Unfortunately, picking your sunscreen of choice isn’t as easy as grabbing the first one off the shelf at the pharmacy. With the concerns of potentially toxic ingredients and unclear standards regarding the degree of UV protection, there are a lot of bad sunscreens out there. For a comprehensive breakdown of some of the best, and safest, sunscreen products on the market for you and baby – check out the top picks from 2015 as provided by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and advocacy around toxic chemical use in mainstream products.
Remember – the sun is your best source of Vitamin D – a nutrient essential for healthy living. But the sun can be equally damaging to skin if we don’t take the proper precautions. Keep in mind the tips for safe sun exposure so you can enjoy the summer months and get all the Vitamin D you need.