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October heat has set in, punctuated by spells of heavy showers which have only dialled up the humidity about 10 notches! But before you go cursing the sun, think about all the Vitamin D you can soak up and the good it does to your bones.

How can Indians not get enough sun??

According to a recent Times of India article, 65% of women between the ages of 12 and 35 years in Mumbai suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. A sedentary lifestyle indoors is cited as the chief culprit, followed by habits such as smoking and alcohol consumption. In a tropical country like ours, there’s ample sunlight throughout the year so Vitamin D deficiency among Indians doesn’t make much sense. And yet, it is a reality, especially among the younger lot.

Moreover, the greater susceptibility of women to this condition can very well be attributed to our increasingly unhealthy dependence on sunscreen lotions and sunblocks. These products may protect our skin from tanning and ageing, but they also prevent our skin from absorbing Vitamin D from the sun!

How does my body process Vitamin D from the sun?

Here’s how it works. Vitamin D is produced by the sun’s UVB radiation – the other wavelengths are UVA and UVC. When UVB rays fall on the surface of the skin, it converts a particular kind of cholesterol in our bodies into Vitamin D3.This mostly happens during that time of the day when the sun is at the highest point in the sky since its rays have the least distance to travel through the atmosphere. Generally, UVB rays are strongest between 10am and 2pm – so walking from the railway station to your workplace in the mornings or taking a brisk walk before lunch may not be such a bad idea.

Are you kidding? I’m not sweating it out in the heat!

Not convinced? Maybe you will be when you find out how essential Vitamin D really is for the smooth functioning of your body. It activates the immune system, giving your body strength to fight infections. Perhaps this is why people chained to their desks are more prone to common colds and viral fever.

Vitamin D also prevents many types of cancers and reduces the risk of osteoporosis (because it strengthens the bones), diabetes and hypertension. It helps boost production of the hormone serotonin which regulates all the good things in life, i.e. our mood appetite and sleep! Serotonin is a feel-good hormone and forms an essential component of many anti-depressant drugs. But you can get it from the sun for free!

How much sun exposure are we talking?

For starters, don’t obsess over covering every inch of your body with sunscreen every time you venture out. About 15-20 minutes of sun 3-4 times a week with at least 30-40% of your body surface exposed, e.g. face and arms, is good enough to provide your body with an optimum amount of this vitamin.

Of course, don’t go overboard either. Overexposure during peak hours can cause your skin to get burnt and can also result in skin cancer in the long run. It is to be done sensibly.

Bad news: the sun rays that reach you inside your car while you’re traveling don’t count since they are infrared radiation and don’t contain Vitamin D. Also, according to researchers at the Australian National University, “dark-skinned people need up to six times as much sunlight as those with fair skin to produce the same levels of Vitamin D”.

Aren’t there other ways I can stock up?

Other then sunshine, the other sources of Vitamin D are eggs, meat, fish, milk, mushrooms and soy products. Vitamin D-fortified products like milk, dairy products, juices, cereals, and Vitamin D supplements are also good.

If you feel you’re severely underexposed to the sun, I suggest you consult your doctor to see if you need to take oral supplements. You can take a look at the Vitamin D daily allowance recommended by Mayo Clinic based on age and health conditions, but remember to consult your doctor before taking oral supplements.

For the rest of us, just a 20 minute walk in the sun every other day may be enough of a health precaution to keep osteoporosis, diabetes and hypertension at bay. Think about it!

Photo: fdtate via Flick/ Attribution License

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