During one of my sojourns through Mainland China I came upon a village North of Beijing in an arid, mountainous region. This village was distinguished because it still retained the flavor of an 18th century village – centuries had passed but the architecture was unchanged, and people still lived in their family homes of 300 years, or more. There was no refrigeration so food customs had also remained in tact – if you wanted a chicken for dinner someone from the village would go out, slaughter it, and feed you the whole animal. Although modern conveniences have done so much to change the way that we can live our lives, and what is readily available to us, time spent in an old village such as this one is a reminder of our humanness, and the customs can teach us a lot about what we need to feel healthy, vital, and happy.
One afternoon, as I made my way up one of the clay pathways I came upon a group of elderly Chinese folks sitting against a wall that was illuminated by winter sunlight. It was a cold day, but snug there at the wall, protected from wind, it was a good place to bask in the sunlight. This basking has a term in Chinese, Shai Taiyang, and it implies that it is good for your body to soak in the sunshine. I sat with the villagers and indeed it felt very good. We all smiled at one-another and had a congenial time, although I did not think much beyond, oh it’s nice to sit in the sun. I did not think about any of the implications to health – not until recently that is.
There is a hormone, which we call Vitamin D, that is produced when the sun soaks into the skin and converts cholesterol stored in the oils of our skin into Vitamin D3. The inert Vitamin D3 travels to the liver where it is converted into another inactive form (called 25-hydroxy Vitamin D), which can circulate through the whole body. Although Vitamin D has been known for some time to be crucial for bone health, studies are now showing that every cell in the body has receptors for Vitamin D. This perhaps explains why deficiencies in Vitamin D have been linked to a wide range of diseases and disorders including chronic muscle and joint pain, chronic fatigue, muscle weakness and poor muscle tone, seasonal affective disorder, infertility, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune diseases, and some forms of cancer especially breast cancer and colon cancer – just to name a few.
Although the recommendation is controversial I do believe that spending fifteen minutes, when the sun is at its peak, basking with bare arms and legs and without wearing any sun block can have advantages to our overall health. (sun screen inhibits our bodies ability to make vitamin D). Of course, it isn’t always possible to follow these recommendations, and we still need to consider the negative effects of the sun damaging the skin. For this reason it is recommended to take Vitamin D supplements. (2000 IU per day is considered safe.) Multivitamins usually contain a low dose of Vitamin D, so it may be necessary to take additional supplements.
Since taking steps to correct my own Vitamin D deficiency, I have noticed a distinct increase in my tolerance to cold, and I have been able to maintain my body temperature much more easily. I find this effect fascinating considering Vitamin D is made by our bodies with the help of adequate daily sunlight. Sunlight is yang in nature, and in fact the Chinese character for yang is a pictograph of the sunny side of a hill. Yang energy is indeed what maintains our body temperature and warmth, and people who are always cold are said to be yang deficient. In addition to feeling warmer, I have also noticed an overall elevation in my mood – I feel more vigorous and optimistic about life in general.
It would be ideal to take time to sit and bask quietly in the sunlight everyday, like I did in China so many years ago, but it is also nice to understand, at least in part, what scientifically is happening inside the body when enjoying such a custom, and how the vitamins that our body makes and needs can help us to live longer, healthier lives. I encourage you to have your Vitamin D levels checked the next time you’re at the doctor to see if you too may benefit your overall health by adding a little sunlight (or a little supplement) to your daily routine. And please don’t forget about your children – they need Vitamin D too to have a healthy immune system.