How much sunlight do you need?

Sunlight stimulates the production of vitamin D. (Getty Images)
Sunlight stimulates the production of vitamin D. (Getty Images)

"Singapura oh Singapura. Sunny island, set in the sea."

Those are the words of a old-time song about Singapore. Being on the equator, there are some great benefits like -- lots of sunshine! There are also some problems like -- lots of sunshine!

To some, sunshine is tan giving, energy boosting and refreshing.

To others, sunlight is wrinkle-causing, cancer-risking, and sunburn-inducing.

So what is it? Here are some tips to help you maximise your benefits from sunlight without the "side effects".

Tip 1: You NEED sunlight. The sun helps us produce vitamin D in its best possible form. I recommend vitamin D to many of my personal training and fitness bootcamp clients because it is a wonderful nutrient that has great benefits for you.

  • Better immune system health to prevent annoyances like the flu

  • Fewer allergies and autoimmune diseases because vitamin D helps to make sure your own immune system does not attack your body with "friendly fire"

  • Fat burning because it helps your thyroid to boost your metabolism

  • Reduced risk of diabetes because of better blood sugar management

  • Reduced risk of most cancers because vitamin D presses the "self destruct" button of cancer cells called "tumour necrosis factor alpha"

  • Muscle building because vitamin D improves testosterone levels naturally

An interesting point is that EVERY kind of tissue in our body has vitamin D receptors. That means that correct vitamin D levels boost ALL areas of health.

The best way to get vitamin D is by exposing yourself to sunlight. Even the best quality supplemental vitamin D is not as good as the vitamin D produced in our own bodies when we are exposed to sunlight.

In fact, Dr. Michael Hollick, probably the world's No. 1 expert on vitamin D, has researched and found out that vitamin D produced from skin exposure to sunlight lasts longer (2x or more) in our blood as when it is taken as a supplement.

Tip 2: The risk-to-benefit ratio of having sunlight vs. not having it is excellent.

The most common damaging problem of REALLY TERRIBLY EXCESSIVE sun exposure is what is known as basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. Certainly it is not a good idea to get skin cancer.

However, basal cell carcinoma is relatively non-malignant, and almost never results in death. However, the cancers that have a REDUCED risk with higher sun exposure (we know this because they are more common in less sunny areas of the world) are very deadly. Colon, breast, prostate and others are very dangerous cancers and the factors against them are all positively influenced by sunlight! Yay!

I don't mean to be "morbid" but we all probably know many people who have passed away from cancer. But how many of them had skin cancer?

Hardly any. But many of them had the deadly versions of cancer listed above.

Tip 3: We need to condition ourselves to sunlight, and our bodies will adapt.

Sunlight has two types of ultra violet rays (UV). Type A and Type B. UVB burns us but also stimulates vitamin D production. UVA tans us but is also damaging to the skin.

Most sunscreen blocks only UVB. So we don't get vitamin D production. Yet it allows us to feel "unburnt" so we stay longer in the sun, and absorb alot of UVA which eventually causes skin problems.

In short, if we are not accustomed to sun, we will get burnt, that is the sign that we have had enough, and should go inside. However sunscreen "turns off" the burning and helps us stay outside longer than out current level to tan and tolerance allows.

It is a bit like training an athlete. If he is gradually conditioned (getting a tan over time) he can withstand great physical training and stress. However, taking a suntan lotion is like training while on painkillers, you feel no pain so you don't know when to stop and you get a serious injury because your body cannot actually handle the training loads.

In conclusion... So how much sun should we actually get for maximum vitamin D with minimum risk?

Dr Hollick gives some guidelines that my clients and I have followed with great success.

I will use equator sun as the benchmark, along with a person who has moderately tanned skin.

For a person like that, 20 minutes, in a singlet and shorts 3 times a week in the midday sun would be a good starting point. Don't ever get burnt. If you get any shade of pink, that is probably a bit much already.

If you have very fair skin, you need less time, and if you have dark skin you need more. If you move to a country further from the equator with different seasons, you will also need more.

Some practical tips include eating lunch outdoors with your sleeves rolled up, participating in outdoor leisure activity during your off days and weekends, and if all else fails, take a good vitamin D3 supplement.

There we have it! Go out and enjoy the sun.

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