qld health

The Aussie Sun Is Brutal — So How Can We Safely Get Enough Vitamin D?

Whether lounging around on a grassy knoll near the beach on a crisp sunny autumn afternoon with a matcha latte in hand or soaking up the early morning rays with a pre-WFH stroll, there's no denying we Aussies love spending time in the sun. While it might be a played-out stereotype, our good weather and stunning beaches make it pretty much impossible to resist spending time outdoors.
On the one hand, it's a huge positive. Spending time in the sun has been known to reap health benefits like lowered blood pressure levels, reduced stress levels, and of course, an increased vitamin D intake, which supports immune function, calcium absorption, reduced inflammation and more.
On the other hand, Australia experiences some of the highest levels of UV in the world. Unfortunately, this also means our rates for skin cancer are also some of the highest worldwide, with more than two in three Australians facing a diagnosis in their lifetime.
So, how exactly do we ensure we're getting all the good stuff from the sun while protecting ourselves from potential harm? We asked Professor Rachel Neale, Deputy Coordinator of the Population Health Department at the QIMR Berghofer Research Institute, for some insight...

Refinery29 Australia: How much vitamin D does the body need? 

Professor Neale: In Australia, it’s considered ‘normal’ to have at least 50 nanograms of vitamin D in your plasma per millilitre. Without enough vitamin D, the body is at increased risk of falls and fractures.
There is also some evidence to suggest that being vitamin D deficient could also increase the risk of getting a severe cold/flu. Additionally, vitamin D is also known to play a role in reducing the risk of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

How much time should we spend in the sun to get adequate vitamin D?

Various factors impact this, including the time of day, time of year, how much skin is covered by clothing, and skin type.
In winter, people with fair to olive/medium skin types need to be outside for about 10-20 minutes between 9 am and 4 pm wearing the equivalent of shorts and a t-shirt. They should do this four or more days per week to maintain healthy vitamin D levels. For those with darker skin, it's recommended to spend around double the time, as some evidence suggests melanin doesn’t absorb as much UV radiation.

What are the best ways to stay safe while in the sun? 

People with fair to olive/medium skin should apply sunscreen to all parts of the skin that aren't covered by clothing on all days when the UV index is forecast to reach three or more at any time during the day. In Queensland, this is essentially every day of the year.
If you spend more than [10 minutes] outdoors when the UV index is three or more (usually from about 8 am to 4 pm in summer and 9 am to 3 pm in winter), people should use the full suite of sun protection activities. This includes covering the skin with clothing, wearing a hat and sunglasses, staying in the shade, and reapplying sunscreen).
Importantly, because it is cooler in winter, we tend to be outside more through the middle of the day and to be less likely to seek shade. As a consequence, we receive about 50% of our annual dose of UV radiation in winter. It is, therefore, critical to protect the skin.

Does the vitamin D we get in our diet count? 

Yes, it all counts! But not many foods are good sources of vitamin D, and most people don't eat enough to meet their requirements in the absence of sun exposure or supplementation. Few foods are rich in vitamin D – the best source is oily fish, such as sardines.
For people who don't go outdoors enough to maintain adequate vitamin D [levels], a supplement is the best way to avoid being vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D supplements are a good source of vitamin D, but there are other benefits of sunlight, so it's important to spend [a few minutes] outdoors to ensure vitamin D deliver these additional benefits.

How can we ensure we're still getting vitamin D during prolonged rain or bad weather?

In Queensland, it would be very rare to experience poor weather for long enough to be an issue. Even on rainy days, the UV index can still be relatively high, so we need sufficient dry periods to get outdoors for a bit. A week or so of being unable to go outdoors isn't a significant problem.
Don't let your guard down as the weather cools — UV can still damage your skin on cloudy and cold days. Continue to apply (and reapply) sunscreen, wear a hat and sunnies and stay in the shade all year.
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