Getting that sunny D

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Celestia_sun
Photo by Runar Thorvaldsen

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My doctor shocked me when he told me after a blood test this summer that my vitamin D levels were low. I didn’t even know that was something that doctors tested for. He prescribed a weekly dose of 50,000 IU for me, but I never filled it. It’s just a vitamin, I told myself, no big deal. I already take vitamins and try to eat a varied diet.

I looked up food sources for the vitamin and figured that I would be fine with my regular consumption of oily fish and exposure to sunshine. When I went back a couple of months later for a follow-up, the doctor was not happy with me. So I was a good little patient and have been taking it ever since.

It turns out that vitamin D helps keep bones strong — that’s what it’s best known for. More debatably, it helps with certain types of cancer (this has not been tested on humans), diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and multiple sclerosis. It’s also said to fight inflammation, aid the immune system and modulate cell growth. One friend who takes it at his doctor’s recommendation tells me it improves his mood in the darker months.

Lately this wonder vitamin has been shoved into the spotlight, with lots of media attention coming in the form of books with names like The Vitamin D Solution, The Vitamin D Revolution, The Vitamin D Cure, Vitamin D: Is This the Miracle Vitamin?, Vitamin D Diet Benefits and The 7-Day Slim Down: Drop Twice the Weight in Half the Time with the Vitamin D Diet.

Whether it’s a miracle substance or not, the so-called “sunshine vitamin” is not a vitamin at all, but a prohormone that our bodies make themselves with the help of sunlight exposure. In cahoots with calcium, it keeps kids from getting rickets and adults from osteomalacia, or bone softening.

Although supplements and oily fish are reliable sources, most of us get our D from time spent outdoors and what is added to milk and some other foods by manufacturers. In modern times we are spending less time in the sun that at any other time in human history. Between our plugged-in lives and media-fueled fear of sunlight, many of us get less of this warm and beneficial stuff than we should. And it’s of more concern during the winter, with fewer hours of daylight and cold temps that keep us indoors huddling for warmth.

Healthy winter skin

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Photo by Flickr user aearlsnd/used under Creative Commons license
Photo by Flickr user aearlsnd/used under Creative Commons license

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When you were a kid, did anyone ever tell you, “Your epidermis is showing?” Maybe you looked down at yourself trying to figure out what that was, before you learned it meant the outer layer of your skin and it was all over.

Although less of it shows in the winter, you may want it to look the best it can. Even the parts that are covered with sweaters and warm pants should be comfortable, supple and free of itches or cracks. Many people, from dermatologists to experts in natural supplements, have opinions on what can help skin ravaged by winter air, whether the cold outdoor kind or heated indoor, both of which take a toll on our tender but strong outermost layer.

At about eight pounds, give or take, the skin is the largest organ in our body, although as a 22-square-foot, tissue-thin layer that covers us, it hardly resembles the bloody masses we imagine our internal organs to be. But an organ it is, as essential for life as heart or brain. Many burn victims who lose much of their skin do not survive. When I worked in a hospital 20 years ago, patients with more than 50 percent of it burned didn’t usually make it. But with modern treatments 90 percent body-burn patients can survive, per the American Burn Association.

This amazing organ protects our body’s interiors from sunlight, heat, cold, chemicals and infection. It is waterproof. It is insulator, protector and shield. It is conduit and translator as the brain’s interface with the world, and like the eyes, part of our sex appeal. It contains natural antibiotics and is an important part of the immune system. As part of the endocrine system it makes vitamin D, which is actually a hormone that helps calcium make our bones strong.

Although it changes in structure and thickness over different parts of the body, the skin has three layers. That epidermis — what shows — is very thin and constantly renewing itself. Underneath is the dermis, with sebaceous glands for perspiration and elastin and collagen for flexibility and strength. The innermost layer is the subcutaneous fat layer, or subcutis, which helps cushion, protect and insulate us.