Well… it’s still winter up here, but at least we made it through January, right?
Given the time of year and the exceptionally dreary weather we’ve been having in London, we thought it’d be the perfect time to talk about Vitamin D, also known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’.
If you, like us, live in colder climates with less annual sun exposure you’re at an increased risk of Vitamin D deficiency, simply 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 even more likely to be low on it yourself. On top of that, in those busy and blurry first few months 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.
But is adequate Vitamin D really all that important? We’re answering some of the big questions when it comes to the benefits of this elusive vitamin, how we actually get it from the sun, and how to stay safe while soaking up the rays.
Why do we need Vitamin D?
It allows for gut absorption of calcium, which has countless functions in the body.
Vitamin D also helps maintain a normal balance of calcium and phosphorus in the blood, which is vital to the formation and maintenance of strong bones and teeth, healthy heart function, and a strong immune system.
Research has also established a link between low levels of Vitamin D and increased risk of depression. While it’s definitely not proven to be a causal relationship, there are treatments that aim to reduce symptoms of depression through Vitamin D supplementation.
Am I likely to be deficient?
As we mentioned, during pregnancy or if breastfeeding, you are at an increased risk of Vitamin D deficiency – but that doesn’t mean you are Vitamin D deficient. All it means is 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 (more on 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.
How much Vitamin D do I actually need?
During pregnancy and lactation, your body is responsible for supplying 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.
So… can I get Vitamin D from food?
Well, it’s a fat-soluble vitamin that can be found in most cold-water fish – such as mackerel, salmon and cod – and also in fortified milk and cereals. So you can definitely look to incorporating these foods into your diet. However, the amounts of Vitamin D in these foods are still fairly small, so you’d need to eat a lot of them to get a sufficient dose.
That brings us to the best way to up your Vitamin D levels: natural sunlight.
How does the sun provide Vitamin D?
To be clear, the sun doesn’t give us Vitamin D, but it helps our body create it. We actually already have the foundation of this nutrient in your skin — we just need something with enough energy to activate it. That’s where sunlight comes in.
When UV rays hit our skin, it converts an existing substance to Vitamin D3, which can then be activated and utilized by our body.
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 UV rays very quickly.
How do I balance safe sun exposure and fulfilling my Vitamin D needs?
Great question! 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 whenever you’re outside for an extended 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.
Less than 10 minutes in the sun without SPF during summer sunlight hours should easily provide your daily recommended amount, without causing sunburn. During the winter, you may need a bit more time, and a helpful way to know how much time is safe is to understand the UV index (which is always reported on your phone’s weather app!).
You won’t be at risk of overdosing on Vitamin D from sun exposure. But of course, 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, reapplying every 2 hours or so
- Wear UV-blocking sunglasses – your eyes need protection too!
To recap: the sun is your best source of Vitamin D – a nutrient essential for healthy living. You’ll need to make a bit of an extra effort in the winter months to get Vitamin D in your system, and the above resources should help you learn how to do that safely!
Want more tips on nutrients key to a healthy pregnancy and happy postpartum? Check out our free ios app!