We’ve been very lucky weather-wise this last couple of weeks and long may it continue! While most public health messages in recent years have focused on the hazards of too much sun exposure (excessive sun exposure can lead to cataracts, premature ageing of the skin and increase skin cancer risk) we must not forget the importance of getting away from our desks and enjoying some time in the sunshine!
Why is sunshine so important for health?
Not only is there evidence to suggest sunlight can have a positive effect on mental health, but also lifting depression and easing stress. A landmark study conducted at Edinburgh University found that when sunlight touches our skin, a compound called nitric oxide that helps lower blood pressure is released into our blood vessels. Richard Weller, Senior Lecturer in Dermatology, and colleagues, say the effect is such that overall, sun exposure could improve health and even prolong life because the benefits of reducing blood pressure, cutting heart attacks and strokes far outweigh the risk of getting skin cancer. Further to this, a wealth of research spanning decades verifies the sun’s essential role in Vitamin D production and its innumerable advantages to health.
What is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient required by the body. Vitamin D has several important roles, for example, it helps control the amount of calcium and phosphate in your body, which are needed to keep your bones and teeth healthy. A lack of Vitamin D is also linked to a growing number of health conditions including diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), certain cancers and most recently schizophrenia.
Is anyone in the UK deficient?
Recent government research shows that up to a quarter of the UK population is Vitamin D deficient although some researchers fear that is a conservative estimate and could actually be much higher. Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Dame Sally Davies said:
“A significant proportion of people in the UK probably have inadequate levels of vitamin D in their blood. People at risk of vitamin D deficiency, including pregnant women and children under 5, are already advised to take daily supplements. Our experts are clear – low levels of vitamin D can increase the risk of poor health.”
Perhaps even more shocking was the Lancet journal article published in 2016 which revealed that the rate of hospital admissions due to rickets is the highest it has been since the 1960s. Nutritional rickets is a condition in children in which bones don’t develop properly due to a lack of vitamin D and proper calcium absorption. It was very common during the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, as more people shifted to urban dwellings, and doctors didn’t know much about how to prevent rickets. Since then, it has been thought that the rate of rickets has declined, as we’ve learned more about it and how proper vitamin D and calcium nutrition prevents and treats rickets. However, as of late, it appears that rickets is back on the rise. This may be a combination of dietary factors (people not eating enough eggs and oily fish) combined with very little exposure to the sun without suncream.
How can we make sure get enough Vitamin D?
You can get small amounts from food (oily fish, beef liver, eggs, & fortified cereals) but it’s unlikely you’ll get the right amount of Vitamin D your body needs
The most natural way to get vitamin D is by exposing your bare skin (without sun lotion) to sunlight (ultraviolet B rays). You don’t need to tan or burn your skin to get vitamin D. You only need to expose your skin for around 15-20 mins. How much vitamin D is produced from sunlight depends on the time of day, where you live in the world and the colour of your skin. The more skin you expose the more vitamin D is produced.
It is worth noting though that when the sun’s rays enter the Earth’s atmosphere at too much of an angle, the atmosphere blocks the UVB part of the rays, so your skin can’t produce Vitamin D. This happens during the early and later parts of the day and during most of the day during the winter season. The closer to midday you expose your skin, the better this angle and the more vitamin D is produced. A good rule of thumb is if your shadow is longer than you are tall, you’re not making much vitamin D. In winter, you’ll notice that your shadow is longer than you for most of the day, while in summer, your shadow is much shorter for a good part of the middle of the day
You can also get vitamin D by taking supplements. This is a good way to get vitamin D if you can’t get enough sunlight, or if you’re worried about exposing your skin. Vitamin D3 is the best kind of supplement to take. It comes in many different forms, such as tablets and capsules, but it doesn’t matter what form you take, or what time of the day you take it
Try to get out daily in the summer months (May-October) to keep your Vitamin D levels topped up. Why not join a Walking Lunch? Or start your own?
It’s a great way to boost staff wellbeing but remember, too much sun exposure, particularly in the midday sun, comes with health risks of its own. Don’t allow yourself longer than 15-20 mins in the sun without sun cream. Use at least SPF15 after this to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging rays. As an employer you can:
Include sun protection advice in routine health and safety training. Inform workers that a tan is not healthy – it is a sign that skin has already been damaged by the sun
Encourage workers to keep covered up during the summer months – especially at lunchtime when the sun is at its hottest. They can cover up with a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat with a brim or flap that protects the ears and neck
Encourage workers to use sunscreen of at least SPF (Sun Protection Factor) 15 on any part of the body they can’t cover up and to apply it as directed on the product. They might prefer to use a spray or an alcohol-based (non-greasy) sunscreen
Encourage workers to take their breaks in the shade, if possible, rather than staying out in the sun
Consider scheduling work to minimise exposure
Site water points and rest areas in the shade
Encourage workers to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration
Keep your workers informed about the dangers of sun exposure – make use of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) leaflet Keep Your Top On
Encourage workers to check their skin regularly for unusual spots or moles that change size, shape or colour and to seek medical advice promptly if they find anything that causes them concern
The Workplace Wellbeing Charter is a business tool to help employers benchmark their good practices and see how they can grow happier and stronger workforces. To find ideas on how you can promote Health, Safety and Wellbeing take the free self-assessment at WellbeingCharter.org.uk.