While sun exposure poses a risk of skin cancer, it is also an important source of vitamin D, a highly beneficial and essential vitamin.
Vitamin D helps with bone development and lowers the risk of serious and fatal diseases. The sun stimulates the production of this vitamin, but with increased efforts to protect children from exposure to harmful UV rays and the risk of skin cancer, they may not be getting enough of it. Australian professor Caryl Newson says a recent study indicates that we need to find a balance between healthy exposure to the sun and sun protection.
A vitamin D deficiency is believed to be the most common medical condition in the world. However, many people are unaware that they are lacking it. Although known as a vitamin, it is in fact a hormone made in the skin, and is responsible for numerous cellular functions throughout the body.
- Vitamin D helps with bone development, especially during a growth spurt or after a bone injury.
- It increases the absorption of calcium, which builds strong bones.
- Vitamin D regulates the balance of other minerals, such as calcium and phosphate.
- It helps in the formation of strong teeth.
- Preliminary research by the University of Oxford suggests that the children of women exposed to some sun during their pregnancy are less likely to develop multiple sclerosis later in life.
- The sun’s ultraviolet rays provide most of our vitamin D, but 15 minutes of casual exposure to the sun, a few times a week, is enough.
- Oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines are good sources of the vitamin, says nutritional therapist Megan Perry.
- Other food sources include liver, eggs, dairy and fortified margarines and milk.
- Breast-fed infants may need supplementation if the mother’s diet is deficient, advises paediatric dietician Natasha Martins.
- Formula-fed babies should not need additional supplementation, unless they are drinking less than the recommended amount.
What happens if there is a deficiency?
Recent research suggests that children are not getting sufficient amounts. “Decreased exposure to sunlight will affect the synthesis of vitamin D in the body, particularly during the winter months” says Martins. The frequent use of sunscreens, especially those with a high SPF factor, can block out the rays that help produce vitamin D. Darkened window panes, and the presence of smog or haze, may also limit one’s exposure to UV rays.
This can result in a number of problems:
- Children and babies could develop rickets, says Martins, meaning the developing bones don’t form properly.
- Bones can become brittle.
- There may be an increased risk of bone fractures.
- Teething may be delayed, the teeth may not form properly or they may develop cavities.
- There could be growth retardation.
- Older people are more likely to be deficient as their skin’s ability to produce vitamin D is affected. They also tend to spend more time indoors, limiting their sun exposure.
- In winter, more vitamin D is needed.
People with a darker skin absorb less sunlight and should include additional sources of vitamin D in their diets.
If you are concerned about your child’s dietary intake of vitamin D, speak to your health practitioner about giving them supplements.
Sunburn has risks of its own, so you should still take care to protect your child against dangerous sun exposure.