By Dr. Peter Jo
Northwest Asian Weekly
More than 130 million Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease. We spend $1.5 trillion dollars a year to manage chronic diseases, but it still causes 70 percent of all deaths in the United States.
How would you like to reduce your risk of becoming one of these statistics by doing something for just a few minutes a day? That may sound like an opening line to a “too good to be true” infomercial, but these benefits can be yours — absolutely free.
Vitamin D has emerged as one of the most talked-about nutrients among scientists, doctors, and nutritionists.
The excitement is warranted. Low levels of vitamin D is strongly related to heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer, low thyroid, and chronic pain.
Preliminary research has also suggested a connection between low vitamin D levels and dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and autism. It seems that lacking this type of vitamin plays a role in the development or progression of most chronic diseases.
Though food is generally the best source of most nutrients your body requires, vitamin D is an exception. Our bodies prefer to produce the vitamin when our skin is exposed to sunlight. Up to 20 minutes of direct exposure to sunlight during peak sun hours (between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.) a few times a week is recommended for adequate production of vitamin D.
Access to sunlight is free, so you would think that most of us would not suffer from these deficiencies. This is not the case. A March 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that nearly 75 percent of American adults and adolescents are vitamin D deficient. The authors went so far as to claim that vitamin D deficiency is “a growing epidemic.”
Those living in Seattle are at particular risk, as the weak winter sun cripples our ability to produce vitamin D from late October through March.
Alexander Pope wrote the famous line, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
This sentiment is one probable cause of the deficiency of vitamin D in Americans. We’ve been scared to death of skin cancer that we often avoid the sun at all costs. Even when we venture outdoors, we routinely slather sunscreen on ourselves, preventing our ability to produce vitamin D.
The beginning of every summer is filled with warnings regarding sunburn and its long-term effects. Sunburn is serious and is never desirable under any condition. Unprotected sun exposure is the primary risk factor in the one million Americans diagnosed with skin cancer each year.
Nevertheless, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Excessive sun exposure is clearly risky, but trends suggest that our current low levels of exposure are causing problems as well. For most people, a reasonable balance of moderate sun exposure to the face and arms (without burning) is necessary for optimal health.
Can’t always get outside? Some people prefer vitamin D supplements to sun exposure, including those with heightened sensitivity to the sun, individuals with a past history of skin cancer, the elderly, and infants. If you are not sure, please ask your doctor about the best ways for you to maintain healthy levels.
While vitamin D is making headlines in the medical community, health care is making political headlines with legislators seeking opportunities to cut health care costs. Here’s a statistic that policymakers are sure to love: a 2008 study found that among veterans, health care costs are 39 percent higher for people with low vitamin D levels. With 75 percent of Americans currently deficient in vitamin D, routine sun exposure (or simple, inexpensive supplementation) could lead to staggering health care savings.
For most of us, vitamin D is free and easily accessible, especially in the summer months. All it takes is a step outside. So take a walk around the block on your lunch break or stretch out on the grass as you flip through the paper. You’ll be taking a very important step in preventing future health problems. ♦
Peter Jo is a medical professional and a former resident of Bellevue.
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