As I mentioned in last week's post about the 5 most important nutrients linked to improved health and performance, Vitamin D3 is essential for peak athletic performance, as well as overall health and longevity. This week let's dig a little deeper into the "Sunshine Vitamin" and how to make sure you are getting enough of it, even in winter.
What's so important about Vitamin D?
Vitamin D contributes to peak athletic performance by directing the physical processes involved with muscular function, strength and recovery. In addition, it drives physical reaction time, balance and coordination. In order to understand how vitamin D can impact your athletic performance, it’s important to understand that it functions much like a steroid hormone (due to its highly-anabolic ability to promote growth, repair and recovery), as opposed to "typical" vitamin. Vitamin D is a hormone-like substance that your skin manufactures when exposed to the UV-B rays of the sun.
The connection between vitamin D and athletic performance has long been known.
- A study dating back to 1938 showed that 100-meter dash times were improved from 13.63 to 12.62 seconds with the use of ultraviolet lamps.
- A 1945 study confirmed that just two minutes of UV exposure three times a week could improve cardiovascular fitness scores by 19 percent.
- During the 1960’s and 70’s, the Germans and Russians won many Olympic medals, attributing their success to vitamin D.
And the health benefits of sunshine (the primary source of Vitamin D) were known even to the ancients. Herbert Shelton, famous American naturopath of the early 20th century and founder of the modern day Natural Hygiene Health Movement, wrote this about the extensive use of the sun for health in Egypt, Greece and Rome:
“Positive evidence of the hygienic use of the sun is found in the history of the Egyptians and other peoples. The Babylonians, Egyptians and Assyrians had their sun gardens; the Greeks their helioses; the Romans their solaria. The great sanitarium of Hippocrates, on the Island of Cos, was equipped with a large solarium for the use of the sun. The Roman thermæ were all equipped with solaria for those taking sun-baths. Hippocrates extols the exsiccative (drying) action of sun-light. Herodotus gives extensive instructions for the use of the sun-bath, emphasizing its effect in strengthening the muscles and nerves. Antyllos describes at some length the effects of sunlight, his description comparing well with those of modern users. Philostratus tells us that the Olympian athletes were required to take sun-baths."
Even more importantly, those I have worked with who have restored their vitamin D3 to an optimal level have been able to measurably improve their performance, recover from hard efforts faster and depend on the support of a stronger, more responsive immune system.
So what should I be doing?
The best thing you can do if you are deficient in Vitamin D is to budget some time for some unprotected, full-body sun exposure. In fact, recent studies imply that sun exposure is the best option; taking even the most effective of vitamin D3 supplements cannot fully replace the benefits of real sun exposure.
While it is not always possible or practical to depend on the sun for year-round vitamin D support (especially in Northern climates), you can still benefit from even the occasional or intermittent session of full-sun when larger body surface areas are exposed. If you are light-skinned, your body will make 10-20,000 units of vitamin D with 20 minutes of full sun exposure. The exact amount of vitamin D produced, however, can vary based on the amount of time you already spend in the sun, your age, and your body fat percentage (among other factors). Keep in mind that regular, ongoing sun exposure to your face, neck and arms won't do the trick; your legs and torso need to see the light of day, too.
If you plan to be in the sun longer than 20 to 30 minutes, make sure to protect your skin from being burned with the use of a high-quality organic-based sunscreen (this article reviews several options).
On days that you do receive sufficient sun exposure, there is no need to use a vitamin D supplement. However, on days that is not possible, look for a high-quality, highly absorbable D3 supplement (sublingual sprays are best) - you want to supplement just enough to be able to maintain a level between 50 and 65 mg/ml.
Be sure to test your levels BEFORE starting any supplementation and re-test every 3-4 months to be sure you are at the targeted levels. And remember, like I said in the previous article, be sure you are getting adequate amounts of magnesium and vitamin K2 with your D3 to ensure optimal absorption and utilization.