As we welcome our first days of warm weather here in the northern hemisphere, it causes me to reflect on just how vital sunshine is in our daily lives. Not only does it help our gardens to thrive and the grass to grow but it helps our bodies produce the essential Vitamin D that we need to support bone health, keep our immune system healthy and may help reduce the risk of developing chronic disease.
Vitamin D is required for the body to absorb Calcium. It also improves the function of muscles which in turn improves balance. This is very important for seniors to avoid injury from falls. Our body controls the amount of Calcium we have circulating in our blood, so if you are not getting enough Calcium it will take it from your bones. Vitamin D together with Calcium is essential for bone strength. Having healthy bones won’t prevent a fall but it can prevent hip or other fractures that could lead to hospital or nursing home stay or permanent disability.
In spite of what dermatologists say we do need a certain amount of sunshine on our bare skin. Besides being essential for Vitamin D production it increases beta endorphin levels which make us feel good both emotionally and physically, it also regulates our circadian rhythm to promote restful sleep.
Just 10 – 15 minutes of exposure on hands, arms & legs 2-3x per week is all that is required to get adequate exposure. Any longer than this require sunscreen to avoid burning the skin. Note that African Americans need 5-10x longer exposure than Caucasians.
Dr. Michael Holick, a Professor and expert on the subject of Vitamin D suggests that seniors and those at risk with osteoporosis or other bone disorders should be sure to get 1500 – 2000 IU daily. Be sure to consult with your physician to determine what is a safe level for your needs.
The recommended daily allowance can be obtained not only through sunlight but by consuming fish oil, fatty saltwater fish such as halibut, tuna, cod, egg yolks and mushrooms. While I am not a big supporter of dairy, milk and dairy products are typically fortified with Vitamin D.
Other ways to maintain bone health are:
Physical activity – aim to get 30 minutes of physical activity daily. Find time for activities like walking, dancing, gardening and light jogging if your body can accommodate that.
Bone Density test – this test helps to assess your bone health and risk of future fractures. Both men and women should have bone density tests every few years.
Supplementation – choose a high quality Vitamin D/Calcium supplement from your local health store, never get vitamins from grocery or department stores as they typically have fillers and other additives in them.
Maintain a healthy weight – being underweight increases risk of bone loss (consult your Dr to determine the best weight for your body)
Quit smoking & limit alcohol use – smoking & alcohol can decrease bone mass and increase the chance of fractures.
Days filled with sunshine are short so get outside and enjoy it every moment you can!