It’s a now familiar sight: kids shielded in sunhats and coated with sunscreen before they venture outdoors. Parents have been warned to help children avoid tanning, and a sunburn is nearly akin to child abuse. But some experts say parents have gone overboard, and their efforts are inadvertently robbing kids of the health benefits of sunlight. More specifically, they worry that kids aren’t getting enough of the vitamin D their bodies produce when exposed to the sun.
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a higher risk of several types of cancer, heart disease, childhood asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, fatigue, muscle weakness and chronic pain. Severe vitamin D deficiency in children results in rickets, weakness and malformation of the growing bones.
But too much sun exposure can result in sunburns — ouch — along with an increased risk of some types of skin cancer.
So what’s a parent to do?
Though there’s little debate over the health benefits of vitamin D, experts and researchers have differing opinions on how much sun is enough and whether sun alone can provide adequate amounts of vitamin D.
Dr. Soram Khalsa, author of The Vitamin D Revolution, says common signs of vitamin D deficiency include muscle weakness, fatigue, a feeling of heaviness in one’s legs, chronic pain, frequent infections and depression.
It takes a blood test to determine whether a person has a vitamin D deficiency.
Khalsa recommends 400 International Units (IU) of vitamin D per day for infants up to age 1; 1,000 to 2,000 IU daily for children 1 to 12; and 2,000 IU for everyone over age 12.
Khalsa maintains that for most people, exposure to the sun can’t provide enough vitamin D — especially during the winter in northern latitudes — and supplements are a necessity.
“Even in a sunny climate, sunlight’s effects can be hard to predict,” according to the American Cancer Society. The ACS maintains that getting vitamin D through sunlight might be sufficient for some, but everything from skin pigmentation to the weather to how far one lives from the equator can influence how much vitamin D the body is able to produce.
Laurie Carlson, Ph.D., a former Cheney resident and author of The Sunlight Solution, started investigating sunshine because of health and behavioral problems her young grandson was suffering. Carlson now teaches history of medicine classes at Western Oregon University. The Sunlight Solution makes the case for ensuring that sunshine and natural light are part of every child’s life.In her grandson’s case, Carlson was concerned because his teeth were riddled with cavities, he had an unexplained protruding chest bone, diarrhea and other problems that his grandmother couldn’t make sense of — until she did some online research that revealed all his symptoms could be connected to a vitamin D deficiency.
She put him on cod liver oil and vitamin D supplements and upped the time he spent in the sunlight. Six years later, she says, he enjoys significantly improved health.
In her book, Carlson ties vitamin D deficiency to diverse conditions ranging from a high rate of Cesarean sections in sunlight-deprived regions — a result of small stature with poor bone development in young girls — to obesity. A 2003 study by the Norwegian government showed that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were the fattest.
Vitamin D levels also affect blood pressure, risk for heart attack and cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, and the development of Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes.
Carlson reports vitamin D deficiency is especially prominent in people with dark-pigmented skin. While 15 minutes of sun-exposure may stimulate lighter skin to produce vitamin D, she writes, it can take more than three times as long for the sun to stimulate more highly pigmented skin to produce adequate vitamin D. In fact, dark-skinned children in sunny Jamaica developed rickets when their lifestyle limited outdoor playtime. Imagine the effects of living in rainy Seattle for children with darker complexions.
Carlson is an advocate for sunlight and never uses sunscreen. In her opinion, sunscreen offers a false sense of security. She also has concerns about chemicals used in sunscreen. She also advocates supplements in various forms to assist with overcoming vitamin D deficiency.
Coeur d’Alene’s Rachel Jenks-Grainger learned about vitamin D after her mother developed a vitamin D deficiency. She says a liquid vitamin D supplement alleviated those problems.
Though she never uses sunscreen herself, Jenks-Grainger uses it sparingly with her children. “I don’t see anything wrong with tan children in the summertime,” she said. “I understand the damaging effects of a burn, so I prevent it, but getting sun is a part of life. I think they need it.”