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  • Writer's pictureCara Blanchard

Exploring the importance of Vitamin D: Part I

How to strike a balance and obtain it safely...

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that plays a fundamental role in maintaining our overall health and well-being. In this blog post we will explore the significance of vitamin D, its sources and the key to obtaining it’s benefits while minimising the risk of skin cancer.

Sun rays peeking out from behind a cloud

Vitamin D, often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin”, is primarily synthesised in our skin when exposed to sunlight. It helps regulate the levels of calcium and phosphate in our bodies, promoting healthy bone development and strength. Emerging research also suggests that vitamin D plays a role in modulating the immune system, reducing inflammation and potentially protecting against certain types of cancers. Exposure to sunlight can also include benefits such as mood enhancement, increased energy levels, circadian rhythm regulation, melatonin production and blood pressure regulation.

Sunlight is a natural and abundant source of vitamin D. When our skin is exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun a chemical reaction occurs, converting a precursor molecule in our skin into vitamin D3. However, sun exposure also carries various risks, primarily due to the harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted by the sun. The risks of sun exposure include skin cancer and premalignant lesions, eye damage, accelerated skin aging, sunburn, and heat-related illnesses.

Skin cancer, particularly melanoma, is a significant concern, especially in countries with high levels of UV radiation like New Zealand. It is therefore important to strike a balance between adequate sun exposure for vitamin D synthesis and protecting ourselves from the harmful effects of excessive UV radiation, and this balance will be different for us all. The good news though is that it is possible to achieve both good sun protection and healthy Vitamin D levels. These are not competing goals.

So, what constitutes acceptable sun exposure?

The intensity of UVB needed to generate vitamin D varies based on factors like latitude, the season and time of the day. The UV index (UVI) serves as an international standard for communicating the intensity of UV radiation.

Vitamin D production also depends on the individual and the amount of skin exposed which makes it challenging to give a general public health message. Sensible sun exposure depends on those factors around UVB intensity, combined with personal factors such as your skin pigmentation, use of sunscreen and risk factors for skin cancer. Some general points to consider are:

  • Sunburn should always be avoided.

  • Understand your skin type and risk factors for skin cancer

  • Stay informed about the UV Index while spending time outdoors. NIWA provides a year-round daily guide of the UV throughout New Zealand and the app invites you to enter your skin type and can provide behavioural advice on skin damage and time to get your vitamin D - Check out the app here!

  • If you’re out and about it the sun, follow sun safety practices – slip, slop, slap, wrap. These will not adversely affect your vitamin D levels.

  • Be vigilant about any changes in your skin - check out our skin cancer awareness post

  • Schedule regular skin checks with healthcare professionals who specialises in skin cancer detection, like our Healthbox Clinical Nurse Specialists -

Are there other sources of vitamin D?

While sunlight remains the primary source of vitamin D, certain food groups can contribute to your intake. These include fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel and sardines), fortified dairy products, egg yolks, and liver. Diet alone may not provide sufficient vitamin D but by incorporating these vitamin D rich foods reduces the amount you need to produce via UVB exposure.

If you have prolonged limited sun exposure or are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency (such as those living south of the country and those with darker skin types) consult with your healthcare provider to determine if vitamin D supplementation is necessary for you especially during the winter months.

So, what’s the takeaway?

Striking a balance between sun protection and maintaining optimal vitamin D levels is entirely feasible. By checking the UV index before heading out, understanding your skin type, and following sun protection measures (such as seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and accessories, using sunscreen with at least a 30 SPF) you can maximise your Vitamin D creation while minimising the risks of sun damage and skin cancer.

Additionally, incorporating vitamin D rich foods and considering supplements when appropriate can help to ensure you meet your vitamin D requirements. Combined with checking your own skin, and having regular professional skin checks, it’s possible to balance these two essential aspects of good health and wellbeing.

Healthbox advises you to consult with a healthcare professional for personalised advice on sun protection, skin cancer risk, vitamin D requirements and supplementation.


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