You don’t have to search very hard to find one important component to your health and well-being — just look up in the sky. The sun, the 4.5 billion-year-old star that provides most of the Earth’s energy, plays a crucial role in warding off disease as well. Among other ailments that natural sunlight can help protect you against are rickets, depression, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, heart disease and even cancer.
The sun works its magic by stimulating the production of vitamin D, a nutrient so important that we are still discovering its many benefits. Vitamin D helps keep our bones healthy, but also gives a crucial boost to our immune system. Unfortunately, most of us don’t get enough of it, leading to the onset of disease and poor health.
The most extreme recent outcome of our modern vitamin D deficit is a rickets outbreak that is affecting children across the United Kingdom. Rickets occurs when bones become weak, often causing deformities like its signature bow-legged affliction. The disease had all but disappeared in Great Britain since the 1950s, but cases have more than quadrupled in the last decade, affecting 833 children in 2013.
“This is not something we should be seeing because it’s completely preventable.” Dr. Mitch Blair of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said to the Huffington Post.
Vitamin D is also crucial in staving off other bone-related diseases like osteoporosis. But the story goes far beyond our bones; one study found that people who don’t get enough of the vitamin are more likely to die from all causes. That means it can help your immune system fight off even the most prevalent modern killers like heart disease and cancer, as long as you get enough of it.
People of color are particularly at risk because their skin does not absorb as much sunlight as lighter skin. In the United States, African Americans have a 25 percent greater risk of dying from cancer than white Americans, and researchers think lack of vitamin D might be part of the reason why. One study found a shocking 75 percent of African Americans deficient in the vitamin, leaving the population with increased susceptibility to other vitamin D-related diseases like rickets as well.
Why aren’t people getting enough sunlight in their lives? For one thing, many of us lead sedentary lifestyles, commuting from home to the office and rarely stepping foot outside. Children are frequently parked in front of the television or computer screen instead of spending time outdoors.
Furthermore, in a case of unintended consequences, when we do go outside we’ve been taught to lather ourselves in sunscreen to protect our bodies from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Avoiding too much exposure to direct sunlight is important to prevent skin cancer, but at the same time we’re shielding ourselves from its beneficial aspects as well. Some doctors are now recommending about 10 to 15 minutes of midday sunlight without sunscreen so you can keep the vitamin D flowing without exposing yourself to too much cancer risk.
People who are worried they aren’t receiving enough vitamin D can use supplements to boost their supply. It’s also found in certain foods such as mushrooms, oily fish, eggs and dairy. However, the easiest way to soak in the important vitamin is the old-fashioned way — through abundant natural sunlight.