By Kasey Willson
What comes to mind when you think about how to balance hormones, enhance your fertility and create a healthy pregnancy? Most women would respond with the importance of eating healthy, exercising regularly, de-stressing and perhaps supplements. All very important, yes. But there is something foundational that is being forgotten about. It’s free, created for us by mother nature but as a society we’re not respecting the benefits it has to offer and many women of a childbearing age are just not getting enough.
Yes, I’m talking about one of my favourite things to do… soaking up the sunshine. With every opportunity I have, you will find me outside embracing the sunshine. When the sun pops out from behind a cloud I’ll race out to catch it. If I'm driving and the sun is at a position in the sky to shine straight onto my arm, I’ll wind down the window to feel the energising rays on my skin. It's second nature to me now and makes me feel rejuvenated.
Aside from the warming joy it brings and the desire to spend the day at the beach, why exactly is sunshine so vital for hormones, fertility, pregnancy and baby health?
It may come as a shock in our sunscreen-happy society, but your skin was naturally designed to be exposed and nourished by the sun. Sunshine works as a major player in optimal health by enhancing your production of vitamin D.
Sunshine provides beneficial UVB rays, or wavelengths that are needed to optimise your vitamin D levels and are actually highest between 10am-2pm, yep the time you’re told to escape the sunshine.
Vitamin D, also known as colecalciferol, is produced from cholesterol in your body when you are exposed to UVB sunlight rays. Cholesterol is transported to your skin, unpacked and converted into Vitamin D3 after sun to skin contact. D3 is not the active form of vitamin D used by the body. It is required to further undergo a process first in your liver, to form 25-hydroxyvitamin D which is the form of Vitamin D that circulates in the blood and is processed in your kidneys, to produce the active form of vitamin D, calcitriol.
I’ll explore this with you later, but just remember that it is UVA wavelengths, not UVB that are what increases your skins photo ageing and skin cancer risks. UVA rays are longer and more dangerous as they can penetrate the ozone layer, clouds and pollution.
Technically a hormone, vitamin D stimulates every cell in your body and effects almost 3000 genes, plus receptors throughout your body. Having optimal vitamin D levels plays a crucial role in modulating your immune health, strengthening your bones and cardiovascular health, controlling your appetite and inflammation, enhancing the look and feel of your skin, balancing neurotransmitters for healthy brain function, balancing blood sugar levels, protecting against cancer, type 2 diabetes, age related macular degeneration and Alzheimer’s.1 Pretty impressive, hey!
Particularly important for hormone health, Vitamin D helps out your thyroid gland by providing antioxidant protection, promotes balanced blood sugars and helps sensitise your cells to insulin,2 therefore playing a pivitol role in PCOS treatment.
That is key, as insulin resistance, where your body requires high levels of insulin to register and use what’s available, is a major driver for inflammation and contributes to other hormone imbalances, such as excess androgens and oestrogen dominance. Vitamin D also helps to control inflammation and assists detoxification within the body. It is your hormone health friend, that’s for sure.
But wait, there’s more…
Preconception, Vitamin D plays a role in stimulating anti-mullerian hormone, which is associated with preserving ovarian reserve. Vitamin D receptors are found in reproductive organs in both men and women and it plays a role in assisting egg implantation. In women with PCOS, vitamin D assists insulin secretion and metabolism and therefore balances high glucose levels.
Throughout pregnancy, sufficient maternal vitamin D levels have also shown to prevent miscarriage risks. In a study of 1,684 pregnant women, a twofold increase in miscarriage rates were shown during the first trimester in the women who were deficient in vitamin D (<50nmol/L).3
Note: Other important nutrients for reducing miscarriage risk include vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid supplementation.
This is just another reason I highly recommend preconception testing and care accordingly, to optimise levels such as Vitamin D prior to conceiving. You can find more in my preconception guide, Glowing Mumma.
Research also suggests that sufficient vitamin D status (>75nmol/L) also plays a role in reducing gestational diabetes and the risk of a low birth weight baby.4
What is your levels are deficient during pregnancy?
Deficient maternal vitamin D levels during pregnancy can cause a deficiency in your newborn and have been linked to issues with neurodevelopment of your baby, particularly contributing to childhood challenges with gross and fine motor skills, as well as social skills.5,6
Low vitamin D levels during this time have also been linked to autism, asthma, allergies, low immunity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, as a child grows.7
Vitamin D may also protect against complications during pregnancy such as infections, pre-eclampsia, as well as premature birth, birth defects and autism.8 Research also hows that sufficient maternal vitamin D status is critical for the skeletal development of your baby.9
If you are breastfeeding, you will need greater levels again, as your body keeps up to the demand of supplying vitamin D to your baby, in your breastmilk.
Did you know that one in four Australian’s showed to be Vitamin D deficient in 2011, with levels less than <50 nmol/L? I’d argue the case that many more are, as optimal ranges for hormones, fertility and pregnancy health and over 100nmol/L. In America, up to 85% of the population are also severely deficient in Vitamin D.
Here's some causes of a Vitamin D deficiency:
Lack of Sunshine
Particularly lack of midday exposure when UVB rays are at their strongest and therefore your vitamin D absorption will be most effective. It is important to note that you won’t gain sufficient UVB exposure for vitamin D production by just exposing your face and hands to the sun. The larger the area of sun to skin exposure, the more effective this will be.
Note that if you have a darker skin tone, you are around 6 times more likely to be vitamin D deficient, as the melanin pigment inhibits vitamin D production from the sun. You will need more sunshine exposure to gain adequate vitamin D status.
Regardless of your skin tone, being in a location far from the equator is another cause of vitamin D deficiency as the UVB sunlight exposure is not adequate for your vitamin D needs, particularly in winter. If you live more than 33 degrees north or south latitude of the equator, this is you. My favourite way of knowing how my location effects my vitamin D status is through the app called ‘D Minder’.
Are you ready for your beliefs around sunscreen to be challenged?
Your sunscreen will not only block vitamin D producing UVB rays, but it fails to effectively block the damaging UVA rays from the sun. UVA and UVB rays are important to receive together as they will give you a signal, through the pigmentation of your skin when you have been out in the sunshine for long enough.
UVA rays are not blocked with sunscreen application and alone will fail to give you a sunburn red-flag. UVA rays actually damage vitamin D, contribute to photo-ageing and skin cancer. The damage is silent and you are blissfully unaware of the oxidative damage occurring in your skin. It is important to note that UVA rays still penetrate through glass, so cover up when you are near a sunny window seat.
Liz Wolfe bluntly explains in her book, Eat The Yolks, “When we block UVB rays while keeping the door open to UVA rays, thinking we’re protected because we aren’t getting burned, we allow the most damaging rays to penetrate our skin and do the insidious work, even as we block our burn signal and stop the production of melanin and cancer- preventing, immune boosting vitamin D. This may leave us more vulnerable to cancer than ever before.”
Sunglasses also limit your exposure to the full spectrum of UV rays. They will block the important UVB, needed for vitamin D production, however let through the damaging UVA rays. I told you I’d be challenging you!
Sunshine exposure, free from sunglasses (even if you are in the shade), stimulates your pineal and hypothalamus glands in your brain and triggers the hormone balancing effects these glands have to offer. Wearing sunglasses in the morning can also prevent optimal cortisol production, the hormone needed to create a wakeful state by suppressing your sleep hormone melatonin. I personally limit the use of sunnies to the times involving a squint-fest when driving or on a very sunny day.
Apart from blocking protective Vitamin D producing UVB while allowing damaging UVA rays, sunscreens contain a myriad of harmful carcinogenic chemicals and endocrine disrupting substances such as phlalates and parabens. A common ingredient in sunscreens, oxybenzene is a known producer of damaging free radicals, but is classified as non-carcinogenic, wait for it… until it is exposed to sunlight. I know it’s a lot to take in and yes, it challenges beliefs that have been engrained in us from a young age, so ’ll leave it at that and let you think on your use of sunscreen.
How To Optimise Your Vitamin D Levels
The most effective time to increase your vitamin D level is midday, when the suns UVB rays are strongest, but the time needed for direct sun to skin contact (without sunscreen) is dependent on your skin tone. You do not however want to overexpose yourself to the sun to the point of causing sun burn, as this too will increase your risk of skin cancer and premature ageing- it’s about knowing your limits. Your body will stop producing vitamin D once you’ve had adequate sun exposure, so never go beyond the time in the sun, where your skin turns just the slightest shade of pink.
If you burn easily, you may need to avoid midday initially, but receive longer times in the sun in the morning and late afternoon.
It is important to note, that vitamin D can’t be produced from sun exposure through glass and when wearing sunscreen. These both act to filter out the UVB rays that are required to be exposed to the skin.
Something else yu may find interesting is that the Vitamin D3 produced from the sun may not be absorbed into your bloodstream until up to 48 hours later. It is therefore best to avoid showering with soap immediately after midday sun bathing, as this can actually wash away the vitamin D3 that was converted from cholesterol after the exposure to UVB rays.
So how do you protect yourself from sunburn and still absorb vitamin D?
The worst thing you can do is cover up for majority of the year in sunscreen and then expect to be protected when you head off for a swim under the summer sun.
It is best to begin building your direct sun to skin exposure gradually in spring, to allow your body’s melanocyte cells to produce a protective pigmentation (also known as a tan). Start with 15 minutes morning and afternoon sunshine, with as much skin exposed as possible, before turning pink. Once you have just the slightest pink colour, your body has produced the vitamin D it needs. By slowly building your sun exposure over time, as your tan develops you may be able to head out at midday for longer, because you will be better protected from the suns harsher rays, present during the summer months.
I encourage you to get your daily dose of the sunshine vitamin- free from sunscreen and sunglasses. If you’re outside for long periods of time and further protection is needed, cover up with clothing such as a collared shirt and a wide brimmed hat. Consider non-nano Zinc Oxide, head for a shady tree or bring along appropriate shade if you're at the beach, such as an umbrella or tent.
The thin sensitive skin around your eyes doesn’t produce as much vitamin D as other areas of your body, plus is more susceptible to early ageing, so wearing a cap or hat is always a good option to keep this part of your face in the shade.
Antioxidant rich foods can also provide natural protection against burning, such as rubbing in coconut oil onto your body at night and consuming coconut products, berries, spirulina, sea buckthorn, olives, turmeric and green leafy vegetables in your daily diet. Enhancing your Glutathione levels through supplementation, will also provide important antioxidant skin protection.
Additionally, I choose to take care of my skin health, by delivering the body's master antioxidant, Glutathione through my skin. The product I use contains breakthrough nano-technology that nano-sizes Glutathione and other skin health nutrients Hyaluronic Acid and Collagen, for superior absorption and bioavailability within my skin. This easy to use spray on product has been a game changer to my skin, giving it a glow- even after many nights of broken Mumma sleep. You can try it too, with a special 10% discount, by heading over here.
Get Tested & Supplement
Vitamin D is a supplement I encourage women in their preconception, pregnancy and breastfeeding journey to consume, as often supplementation is required to gain optimal levels.
As a vitamin D maintenance, look at your natural source of vitamin D in a cod liver oil supplement, but I also recommend having your vitamin D tested. You can generally request one 25(OH)D test through your GP in Australia once per year and be covered by Medicare. Anything more than this, you may have to offer to pay for (which is around $50),or seek through a functional medicine practitioner such as a Naturopath or Nutritionist.
If your levels have tested as being below 100 nmol/ L, I would encourage extra supplementation. Optimal levels are 100- 160nmol/L.
Opt for a Vitamin D3 form also known as cholecalciferol, over Vitamin D2. D3 is more potent, 87% more effective and and is chemically identical to the vitamin D produced from your sunshine exposure.
It is important to note that Vitamin D is fat soluble, so eating some good fats alongside a supplement enhances the absorption. To protect yourself from an unbalanced vitamin D exposure or intake and an increased vitamin K2 demand (which naturally happens when supplementing with Vitamin D and can lead to moving calcium around in the body), also include vitamin K2, it is best practise to combine vitamin D rich sunshine (and D3 supplements) with protective and synergistic vitamins A and K2.
My favourite food sources are cod liver oil and chicken liver pate. You can get my Chicken liver Pate recipe here. Just remember that vitamin K2 keeps calcium right where we want it- in your bones and teeth, not in your arteries.
To gain extra guidance in supplementing Vitamin D for healthy hormones, head here. For specific pregnancy and breastfeeding vitamin D supplemental support, head here.
Optimise Your Vitamin D Through The Sun
There’s no denying the abundance of health benefits sufficient vitamin D levels bring. We are naturally designed to be moving about outside and soaking up the UVB rays.
See how taking off your sunnies (especially in the morning), holding off on the toxin-laden sunscreen and gaining direct sun to skin exposure, serves you. Begin your increased sun exposure in Spring to strengthen your body’s process of natural sunburn protection for the summer months ahead and embrace the many benefits an increase in your vitamin D levels will bring to you and your baby, through your journey into and throughout motherhood.
More information on the product I use for enhanced glutathione absorption and bioavailability within my skin (to brighten and even skin tone, to help lift and firm, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, smooth skin texture and fight skin ageing pollutants) is found here. Try it out for yourself and gain an extra 10% off at the cart.
Sharing the love is so much fun. I genuinely want THE BEST products and education in your hands. When you purchase any of my favs above, I get an affiliate commission.
So now you can enjoy them as much as I do!