Healthy Living: Swine Flu, the Sun and D3

By Jim Catano

by Jim Catano

How to stay healthy with a few lifestyle changes…and a supplement. In winter, getting enough D3 takes effort.

catano_dIt’s almost impossible to find a newscast or newspaper that doesn’t remind us that influenza season is here, and that this time there’s an extra wrinkle. Swine flu—aka H1N1—is this year’s special flavor, and many believe it’s going to serve up more than the normal ration of grief.

It’s almost impossible to find a newscast or newspaper that doesn’t remind us that influenza season is here, and that this time there’s an extra wrinkle. Swine flu—aka H1N1—is this year’s special flavor, and many believe it’s going to serve up more than the normal ration of grief.

And, as usual, the nation seems to be dividing neatly into two main camps. There’s the majority who place their trust in the opinion of pharmaceutically-based medicine—most physicians, the powerful drug manufacturers and their main backers in government and in the mainstream media. Then there are those of us in the minority—who contend that the reason much of America will fall victim to an experience ranging from a week of uncomfortable symptoms to, in some cases, a trip to the morgue, is not because the population is suffering from some kind of massive “flu vaccine deficiency disorder.”

Within the natural health camp, some question the effectiveness or safety of the hastily developed and distributed swine flu vaccine and would rather risk catching the flu than taking something they don’t trust. Some, the immunity fans, contend that when you properly take care of your body, it takes care of you; you either don’t get sick or suffer only mildly if you do.

The immunity argument centers around a widely misunderstood aspect of human physiology known as the immune system, and most people know only one thing about it—that the body creates resistance to specific diseases from being exposed to them, and then makes antibodies that attack the infectious micro-organisms the next time they show up. That, in fact, is the operating principle behind vaccines—introduce a small dosage of a dead or weakened virus into the body and it will create the prized defenses against it, on store for when the real thing shows up.

Those of the alternative medicine persuasion don’t see the wisdom of introducing something foreign into the body, or have concerns about the preservatives and other ingredients, such as adjuvants, that come along with it. We rely instead on our natural immune system, which doesn’t get as much discussion by the mainstream. It’s the body’s ability not to require a previous introduction to an infectious organism in order to fight it, but rather to be able to take care of business on the fly because it’s in top working order.

How to keep the human body in peak condition, however, is a topic with no lack of varying opinions. Most methods focus heavily on the issue of diet—and rightly so. If we were to take a field trip to the book store to “average” all the various health-promoting plans in the volumes that line the shelves, we’d probably come up with something like this: Eat more vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and whole grains, fewer fatty animal products and limit or avoid overly processed ingredients such as sugars and refined grains. If you do, you’ll get all the vitamins and other nutrients you need. For backup, perhaps, take some supplements. Oh, and don’t forget to exercise.

I’m not saying that isn’t good advice. It generally is. But even if you do all of those things, there’s still a big chance you’ll come up on the short end as we pass through the flu season, especially if you’re living the rest of your life like a typical American.

But first things first. Have you even wondered why there even is a flu season? The conventional wisdom has been that in autumn kids go back to school, start swapping microbes in that closed environment, and go home and infect their parents who then take the bugs to work.

It’s a plausible enough theory, but it has a problem: It’s just an urban legend. And it’s one that many physicians have even bought into despite the fact that it’s never been demonstrated by any kind of scientific research. Plus, it runs up against another reality that has been proven by a host of scientific studies. Something happens in the fall that’s a much bigger factor in why things like the flu show up with a vengeance: We go back to being cave dwellers.

We moderns take the “caveman” description of our primitive Neo­lithic ancestors too literally. Those noble gatherer/hunters may have slept in caves, but during the day they were outside finding food and otherwise taking care of business, where they were exposed to something that modern humans have pretty much subtracted from their lives: the sun.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 18th century Europe, the lives of the majority of those in Western countries have gradually moved indoors. Many of us now rarely see the light of day. We get up, go to work inside the modern equivalent of caverns in a hillside and then go home, spending only a few moments directly exposed to sunlight as we get in and out of our cars. And, by the way, having lots of windows doesn’t count.

So what does this have to do with whether or not you’ll get swine flu?

Here’s what happens when the body is exposed to sunlight: A slice of the ultraviolet light spectrum called UVB reacts with the cholesterol in skin and turns it into what’s known as vitamin D3. D3 is a precursor to a vital hormone that gets converted into a powerful steroid hormone by the liver, kidneys and other organs. It is one of life’s essentials which, unfortunately, indoor living deprives us of.

So how to we get the vitamin D we need? Nature’s way is to spend a lot of time (and get a lot of our skin) exposed to the sun. Our ancestors spent much of their day outside searching for food or, for the past several thousand years, herding or farming it. In warmer weather, wearing a lot of clothing was not a big part of those activities. This gave sunlight a chance to produce enough vitamin D to keep their immune systems in top working order, and enough of it was stored up to get them through the winter. (Sunlight at northern latitudes loses its component of UVB as it passes through too much of the atmosphere at a low angle.)

In northern areas, humans even developed lighter skin in order to convert limited UVB in sunlight into vitamin D more quickly. That’s why most people can tell the difference between a typical Swede and a typical Somali. Lighter skin is an adaptation to living where there’s less sunshine. Only in recent centuries have many humans migrated far from their ancestral homelands, where their skin color was perfectly adapted to how much the sun shines.

Of course, there are exceptions. A few darker skinned peoples do live at more northern latitudes, and have for a very long time—consider the Inuit or Eskimos. They, however, get their vitamin D from a dietary source by eating a high quantity of the few foods that do contain it—fatty fish and sea mammals. So if you want to get an adequate intake of vitamin D the way they do, you may need to start saying, “Pass the blubber, please.”

Another way for modern humans to get their D is at the electric beach. Properly equipped tanning beds do emit D3-producing UVB. But if you go that route, make sure the bulbs put out 3% to 5% UVB, and avoid any bed that “hums,” as it’s probably pumping out as much harmful radiofrequency or electromagnetic radiation as it is healthful UVB.

What about skin cancer? Yes, it is a concern for both sun exposure and tanning beds but, media hype notwithstanding, it’s a relatively minor one. It becomes an almost non-existent risk if you remember one simple thing—tanning does not equal burning. Getting sunburned is what causes problems. Sunburn damages the skin, which both prematurely ages it and increases the risk of skin cancer or melanoma. Burning is an overdose of UVB, if you will.

Since the early ’70s the sunscreen industry has blown this risk way out of proportion. The good folks who promote sunscreen have made a fortune convincing most Americans that any exposure to the sun will have their skin looking like shoe leather by age 30 and make them victims of skin cancer by 60.

Oddly, the exact opposite has happened. Melanoma rates have increased right along with the increased use of sunscreen. Those who use sunscreen usually apply it before going outside, never letting their skin even start to produce the vitamin D that could build up their immune systems to better protect them from infections and perhaps even from other modern plagues, such as cancer and heart disease: Most sufferers of those conditions have the lowest rates of vitamin D.

If you decide to go the tanning route to get your D, you’ll need to gradually build up how much exposure you’re getting, which will vary greatly according to your skin type. Light-skinned people can slowly increase from a few minutes a day to where they can get all the vitamin D they need in about 30 minutes of mid-day sun exposure. And no, you can’t produce much vitamin D before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m., since insufficient UVB is getting through when the sun is at that low of an angle. And extremely dark-skinned people need up to six times longer exposure to sunlight to bring their D levels up to an optimal point.

But if you can’t or don’t want to get your vitamin D through careful exposure to the sun or in a tanning bed, the easiest way is by taking a supplement. There’s also no nasty blubber aftertaste.

Even supplementing with D can be tricky, though. Most people think they can get all the D they need by drinking a glass of milk. Think again. The government requires that milk be supplemented with 100 International Units (IUs) of vitamin D per eight ounce glass. But the average person produces roughly 4,000 IUs of vitamin D per day from adequate sun exposure. To get that much D, you’d have to drink 40 glasses of milk. The reason only 100 IUs are found in milk is because outdated federal standards for D were based on the amount needed to prevent rickets, a bone development disease in children, which requires only a trace of D. So don’t count on the vitamin D in milk to do your body much good.

But neither should you count on the vitamin D found in most multivitamin supplements. If you look on the panel, those typically contain 200 to 400 IUs for each tablet, which again is far short of the 4,000 or so you need.

If you’re going to take a D3 supplement, find a high quality one that will give you at least 4,000 IUs per day. (D2 is also available, but it’s only about 40% as effective.) As with any other substance, there is a point at which vitamin D can become toxic, but you’d have to really be overdoing the supplementation to come anywhere close.

In short, the evidence coming from scientific research is compelling: A lack of vitamin D in most modern Americans is a huge factor in many of the infectious and chronic degenerative ills we suffer, including the emotional ones, such as depression.

In the 17 years I’ve been studying natural health, I’ve seen many people throw wads of cash at products and practices that were supposed to work wonders, only to end up disappointed. I’ve never been fortunate enough to discover the “magic bullet.” What comes closest and does the most good for the least effort and expense is something that’s been available to us for free all along. Sunshine.

So if your life has detached you from a direct connection with the sun, maybe it’s time to reconsider how you’re living it.

That said, we are in the four-month period known as “Vitamin D winter” that straddles the winter solstice here in the northern United States. At this time of year, not enough UVB gets through the atmosphere to create vitamin D. Popping a D3 pill once a day during this time may prove to be one of the smartest things you can do. It will go a long way toward making sure swine flu stays out of your life. u

Jim Catano is the editor of Dr. Marc Sorenson’s “Vitamin D3 and Solar Power for Optimal Health” and several other books on natural wellness, and an increasingly frequent contributor to CATALYST. He lives in Salt Lake City.


This article was originally published on November 2, 2009.