Why Actual Sun Exposure Is Better Than Taking Vitamin D Supplements

When the words "sun exposure" come up, what comes to mind are the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays that cause sunburn, dry skin and various forms of skin cancer, including its deadliest form, melanoma. What are little known to many is that in the early 20th century, sun exposure used to be beneficial to everyone's health --especially for diabetics or those with heart disease-- until the advent of sunscreens, sun avoidance and vitamin D supplements, and that for every death as a result of sun exposure and sun-exposure-linked skin cancer, there are more than 300 fatalities caused by sunlight deficiency. So are the arguments of the book "Embracing the Sun," co-authored by Sunlight Institute founder Dr. Marc Sorenson, that has re-introduced the long overlooked health benefits of sun exposure to a wider audience.

Compared to vitamin D supplements, actual sun exposure has a variety of nutrients both present and absent in dietary supplements, including:

  • Vitamin D - Though present in dietary supplements, Vitamin D is much more abundant in sunlight. It helps in a lot of health functions, ranging from bone health to improved brain function. Vitamin D also radically decreases the risk of autoimmune diseases, which include type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, and even prevents osteoporosis, which is the bane of all women.
  • Nitric Oxide (NO) - Sun exposure, even during a cold season, increases nitric oxide production in the body, lowering the risk of heart disease, among other health benefits. UVA rays and near-infrared light spectrum both provide the NO the body needs; the latter also supplies mitochondria-boosting cytochrome c oxidase (COO) which is absent in any vitamin D supplement. It even aids in addressing erectile dysfunction for men.
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) - Present even during the winter, the BDNF gene aids in both learning and memory since it helps in synaptic plasticity, decreasing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. 
  • Serotonin - Research cited by Sorenson showed that when exposed to sunlight all day, the level of serotonin in the body increases by 800 percent, bringing much needed relief from depression; its precursor, melatonin, aids in sleep and cancer prevention.

Vitamin D Levels

While sunlight is abundant with vitamin D, it is important to note that there is a healthy vitamin D level that is needed for optimal disease prevention, though the actual ideal level varies depending on the condition.

Considered to be the cutoff for vitamin D sufficiency, science found 20 nanograms/milliliters to be grossly inadequate and dangerous for the health, and that a vitamin D blood level of 60 to 80 ng/mL is needed for all-round protection from various diseases. Once above 60 ng/mL, risk of cancers and chronic illnesses declines -- up to 80 percent in the case of breast cancer.

sunlight on skin The main way our bodies absorb vitamin D is through the skin — when sunlight hits us. Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0