Some call Vitamin D a ‘sunshine’ vitamin; I call it sun-blessed ‘vitamone’, for it is a vitamin as well as a hormone, manufactured by our bodies when our skin is exposed to the sun. We do not know if any other vitamin goes through the process of activation that ‘D’ does. First, the skin makes a form, a sort of a precursor of the Vitamin D when it is exposed to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. That form of D is slightly changed (metabolized) by the liver and passed on to the kidneys where it is converted to the biologically active form of Vitamin D, the one our body can use.
Virtually every tissue, every cell in our body has receptors for Vitamin D, meaning that they all require vitamin D to perform their given duties. This makes ‘D’ a ringmaster that makes the tissues and cells of our heart, brain and fat and cells perform in a disciplined way to remain healthy. ‘D’ also regulates genes that control cell growth and development, our immunity, and metabolic control. In very simple words ‘metabolic control’ means being a part of all the biochemical reactions that orchestrate the fine music of our lives, how the food and water we take is finally utilized by our bodies, how much of what we eat goes into energy production or for body-building or stored as deposited as fat (Read: VAT or SCAT, see my previous article).
This means that ‘D’ goes beyond playing a role in maintaining our bone health, deficiency of which disturbs the harmony and turns the fine music of our lives into a harsh cacophony or a stony silence! And that is frightening. Studies have shown that ‘D’ deficiency is associated with chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes (linked with lifestyle), cancer, infections, and cardiovascular, autoimmune (when our own body cells attack our other cells, a kind of internal civil war), and neurological diseases (connected with nerves).
Now comes the hard hitting fact how our obsession for skin colour can damage our health. The colour of our skin plays an important role in the absorption of Vitamin D. Darker skin contains more melanin; it is our body’s defense mechanism for greater protection against ultraviolet radiation exposure. Because of this protective effect, duskier people must spend more time in the sun to make vitamin D compared to those with lighter skin.
Melanin is a pigment that is produced by special cells in the skin. It comes in different hues, from very light to very dark, depending on the genetic make-up of the individual. Everyone has approximately the same number of special cells that produce melanin. The production mainly depends on exposure to the sun – Melanin is produced as a response to ultra violet radiation in order to prevent damage to the DNA. The special cells will produce more melanin for protection. Long-term exposure can cause early skin aging, wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, dark patches, and pre-cancerous skin changes. The irony is that exposure to sun also makes our skin produce ‘D’ that protects us from skin damage and skin cancers caused by overexposure to the ultraviolet rays! The scientific community is in dilemma ‘how we can attain that fine balance – avoiding overexposure, yet exposing ourselves enough to make sufficient ‘D’?’ (As little as five to 30 minutes of unprotected skin exposure to sunlight can produce adequate amounts of ‘D’.)
We Indians are obsessed with fairness. As seen in the advertisements of fairness creams and lotions (C&L) that the fair maidens get better husbands, are more confident and prove more successful, which is NOT TRUE). Even the boys no longer want to be tall, dark and handsome! They want to be lighter and paler (never mind ‘D’ deficient and unhealthy). The fact is that the fairness creams do not make anyone fairer; these C&Ls either bleach the skin, or remove the dead cells or protect the skin from getting tanned. There is one more ‘effect’ these C&Ls have on us and that is not skin-deep. Excessive and prolonged use of C&Ls containing heavy-duty sunscreens that do not allow ultraviolet rays to penetrate may lead to Vitamin D deficiency!
Sun is a true star of our solar system; we earthlings owe our lives to our SUN! Sun makes photosynthesis happen– on which the plants thrive and make food. There are other ways to get ‘D’, like some foods, but sunrays are the main and the cheapest source. Does it really matter if we look a little tanned, turn a bit duskier? Some exposure to the sun is healthy. Health is beauty and hence, ‘dusky is beautiful!