ABOUT CYNTHIA VANN: Cynthia is a respected member of the macrobiotic community. She is a dedicated long-time researcher, historian and archivist of macrobiotics. Cynthia attended the levels at the Kushi Institute and is a graduate from Macrobiotics America’s Counselor Training Program. She is currently enrolled in our Macrobiotic Chef Training Program. She is a macrobiotic counselor as well as consultant in iridology and sclerology. Cynthia compiled a 4-booklet series, Best of East West, containing many of the most popular seasonal recipes published in the East West Journal during the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. She is also an avid nature and hiking enthusiast. To contact Cynthia Vann: firstname.lastname@example.org
In Here Comes the Sun, Part 1, we looked at how we are “solar powered.” Humans can’t directly capture the sun’s energy like plants; we are dependent upon the plant world to do that for us. Plants photosynthesize sunlight and store it primarily as carbohydrate. We then ingest plants, and through digestion unlock plant sourced solar energy to fuel our very existence. Sun exposure is a different, yet essential way in which we “ingest” sunlight – not through food consumption and digestion, but through our skin. By exposing our skin to sunlight, we are nourished by transmuting the sun’s energy into Vitamin D. Here in Part 2, I present an interview with Cynthia Vann, who shares her personal experience and long-time research of Vit D.
CB: Cynthia, what first led you to study Vit D?
CV: We were camping and hiking, about 8 miles in. On the last day I was enjoying a beautiful hike up the mountainside when I slipped on some loose shale. Reflexively, I broke the fall with my hand and heard a cracking sound. My companions helped me with the climb back down to camp and put a cast on it. I slept there overnight. The next day, I walked the 8 miles out. The injury was OK as long as I didn’t move it a certain way. After 2 days, I went to the ER and they patched it up. Well, that piqued my curiosity. I hadn’t had any prior breaks for decades, really. I’d recently had a bone density test that came out great. So I was surprised.
Then I went to visit a friend, Mark Sorenson, who owns a spa. He had been studying Vit D quite extensively and had even written a book about it. He was giving lectures on the subject at hisspa. I had never considered Vit D to factor into my bone health and had never had my Vit D levels tested. He suggested that I get tested when I got home.
Also, there was a woman staying at the spa, who had been diagnosed with osteopenia. She had brittle bones and marked depression, as well as other bothersome symptoms. Her Vit D level was at 6 ng/ml and it’s supposed to be at 40. She did a series of supplemental treatments and a sunbathing regime and raised her levels up to 40. Well, I was very impressed and my curiosity drove me to do extensive reading and research.
CB: So, the lady who did the sunbathing, how much of her skin was exposed and how long was her sunbath?
CV: She went out in a bikini. The length of time for sun exposure depends on your skin type. She was fairly light skinned. For pale skin, you don’t have to be out very long, maybe 5 minutes on each side. You don’t want to burn. The danger of sun tanning is not from tanning, it’s from burning. You learn how long you can sunbathe before you start to burn. That’s generally the amount of time it’s safe.
CB: Would you say that when less skin is exposed, you should stay out longer?
CV: No, you can’t make up for skin surface. It’s better to have more skin exposed. However, if you can’t have the skin exposed, by all means, still go out and get some sun.
For babies, Dr. Jym Moon said that the cheeks and the hands are enough for a baby. Just take care not to let the baby’s skin burn.
CB: I remember after my first delivery, the baby was slightly jaundiced. It was winter, and the midwife recommended having the baby lie naked on a blanket by a window with the sun coming through. Is the liver involved in Vit D production or storage?
CV:Yes, organ-wise, the liver is crucial along the pathway of Vit D production as well as the kidneys. Vit D is currently believed to be made by all the cells of the body, and not just bone cells, as previously believed. It’s very beneficial for all the organs. Each cell in our body has a Vit D receptor. Vit D deficiency can harm the DNA function.
CB: In that case, since our body replaces 40-50 billion cells per day, Vit D is consequential for healing and cell regeneration. Simple things like bruises or cuts would take longer to heal if Vit D levels are low.
CV: Bob Pirello, had been macrobiotic for 20 years. He was very athletic, jogging daily. He broke his foot while running a marathon and also discovered that he had lumber fractures. He was very surprised to find that his bones had become very fragile, equivalent to a man in his 80’s. He wrote a book about his recovery titled Beating Osteoporosis Naturally Easily Sensibly.
CB: I recall that after that happening, he and his wife changed their diet from a long-time oil and protein restricted diet. They researched different kinds of oil, such as hemp oil and some other kinds of fat. He began including good quality oil in his diet, consuming more protein, and he fully recovered. What role does fat play in metabolizing Vit D?
CV: Fat is needed to produce and store the Vit D that our body transmutes from sunlight because it is a fat-soluble vitamin. Vit D is actually a hormone. We talk about Vit D like it’s vitamin, but it’s actually a sterol hormone that acts like a vitamin.
CB:Does it matter what kind of oil, whether plant sourced or animal sourced? Often fish oil is recommended. Does it matter?
CV: No, just as long as it’s a fat, our body can use it in conjunction with sun exposure to make and store it’s own Vit D.
CB: It is true that Vit D is almost totally absent from plant sources with the exception of mushrooms exposed to UVB light.
CV: Some amount of Vit D is present in fatty foods of animal origin, such as butter, milk, cheese, fatty fish, liver (Vit D is stored in the liver), and eggs. Even then, the amount of Vit D contained in animal foods is limited and varies depending upon how much exposure to the sun that the animal had.
To get 65 IU’s (International Units) of Vit D, you would need to consume
1 pint non-enriched whole milk
3 TBSP butter
As you can see, you would have to consume an abundance of those foods and also accept the health risks that coincide with consumption of those foods. Because of the scarcity of Vit D in foods, it appears that nature has given us another path to receive Vit D. We can simply expose our skin to the UVB rpays of sunlight and make Vit D for ourselves, independent from animal sources.
The recommended 600 IU level set by the RDA is an artificial level. It’s more like 1500 IU that we need. That’s why exposure to sunlight is so important.
CB: Now that 1500 IU, is that how much you would normally need or is that for someone who is deficient?
CV: That’s how much you would need if you are deficient.
CB: So 600 IU is the standard amount an average person would need per day?
CV: Well, it’s really kind of low. In my earlier research, I found that 800 IU is better. This can vary from person to person. It’s advisable to have a test to assess your own condition. However, receiving Vit D via sun exposure does not pose the risks of Vit D toxicity that can happen when taking Vit D supplements.
CB: Aside from a medical test, are there any markers to indicate that a person is possibly deficient?
CV: Ok. My girlfriend was macrobiotic for 25 years. She recovered from chronic fatigue syndrome by practicing macrobiotics. So she is very grateful to macrobiotics, but she still had this consistent bronchitis every year at the same time.
After studying Vit D, I looked at my friend objectively. I suggested she get tested for Vit D deficiiency. I had seen from researchers that respiratory diseases respond best to sunlight. In fact, before we had antibiotics, sunlight (heliotherapy) was the most common way to treat tuberculosis, asthma and bronchitis. Then when antibiotics came along, sunlight therapy was dropped. This was in the 1920’s.
My friend eventually got tested and her levels were at 15. I told her that number was really low and that she would benefit by increasing her Vit D levels. She decided to do the sunbathing. She did that for a year and got retested and it was over 40. So she was happy to know how much sun exposure she needed to stay healthy. And after 5-6 years, she had no more bouts of bronchitis.
CB:It’s interesting to consider this, because colds, bronchitis and pneumonia tend to occur more in the winter months when there is less sunlight.
So let’s say a person is low in Vit D and they want to expose themselves to the sun, what would you recommend in terms of how much exposure? Is it so much time per day, how many times per week and for what length of time?
CV: As far as frequency of sunbathing, it depends upon individual health needs, geographical location, time of year and age. Plus it depends upon how the person reacts to the sunlight. You want to stop before you get burned. Most people know what their limit is before they get burned. Some people can go all day in the sun and not get burned. And the nice thing to know about sunbathing and Vit D is that, unlike supplementation, you will not overdose on Vit D. When you take the sunlight in through the skin, the body automatically cuts off production with long exposure. That’s also how melanin production, resulting in skin tanning, protects you from taking in too much Vit D.
CB: So you’re also saying that the person’s skin tone and the amount of melanin the person has in their skin, would also factor in as to how much sun exposure an individual needs.
CV: Yes. For example, an African American would need to be in the sun for about 3 hours to make the same amount of VitD as a pale person would in 5 minutes, This is due to the concentration of melanin in the skin. Sunlight does not penetrate darker skin as efficiently as pale skin. A pale person can sit under an umbrella and not even have the sun directly touch them, having only reflected light, and they can make
CB: So say a person is infirm and they are in the house a lot. If they sit by a window, would that be enough to help them improve their Vit D levels?
CV: It should. Say that the window blocks some of the UVB, but if a plant can grow in a window, then you can get enough Vit D, I would think.
CB: A lot of people are afraid of sun exposure. They wear sunblock for fear of skin cancer. What would you suggest? Do you think melanoma is actually related to sun exposure or does it have its roots somewhere else in a person’s health?
CV: There are several studies out on melanoma. One study that interested me was a study of outdoor workers. They discovered that the melanoma rates for the outdoor workers was lower than the rates for the indoor workers. So what sense does that make regarding this sunlight scare?
I think it’s a real problem that people do not understand that it’s not sunlight that causes skin cancer
. It’s the internal quality of your blood that cause skin eruptions to come out. That poor quality blood condition may be hidden until you get a catalyst such as the sun to bring those things out through the skin.
CB: I know that’s true for things like age spots, freckles or those dark splotchy areas on the face or hands. From a macrobiotic perspective, those types of dark splotchy pigmentation come from consumption of sugar, excessive fruit and fruit juice, and lactose or milk sugar.
CV:That’s the “darkening effect” Dr. Lustig talks about. He really dislikes soda pop! It’s just heat and sugar causing the dark spots.
CB: Like baking cookies, huh?
CV: (Laughing) Yes.
CB: I remember as a teenager, I developed a real sensitivity to the sun. If I was out in the sun for a long time, my face and the fleshy web on my hands between the thumb and index finger would swell, become very puffy, red and itchy. I now know that this condition resulted from eating lots of sugar growing up. Every once in a while I come across someone who suffers from that condition and tell them, “Oh, stop the sugar! It will clear up.”
Sugar also plays such a detrimental role in the rise of diabetes. Studies are now indicating that low Vit D also factors into the rising rates of diabetes. Pregnant women with low Vit D levels can develop pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes. One question doctors often ask pregnant women is if they have head sweating, as head sweating can indicate low levels of Vit D.
We didn’t really talk about depression, and I also wondered if Vit D has any effect on the depression that may coincide with postpartum, menstrual cycles and menopause for women.
CV: In my experience, and of course I discovered Vit D after I was menopausal, I can say that it does help with depression, but overall the things we do with food in Macrobiotics was the most helpful, like cutting out sugar. Sugar is a real disruptor of Vit D storage. We are depleted every time we overload ourselves with extreme yin, including alcohol and caffeine. Over consumption of these extreme foods depletes Vit D, enabling a deficient state. And yes, we may experience depression as well as achiness, muscle weakness and bone deterioration – all symptoms associated with low Vit D levels.
CB: Vit D has a lot to do with how we metabolize calcium. Is that correct?
CV:Yes. If we are Vit D deficient, we are going to have bones at risk of fracture. Metabolized variants of Vit D regulate the absorption of calcium, magnesium and phosphorus needed to mineralize the bones.
CB: As people age, they are increasingly concerned about their bone health. Consequently, they load up on calcium supplements. How do you view that?
CV: Well, that would not be my way of building strong bones. I would tell the person to stop alcohol, sugar, caffeine, and excessive consumption of fruit and fruit juices. Then make sure that their Vit D levels are good and check if they need to be out in the sun more.
CB: That’s good advice. Overloading on calcium, especially with supplements, can lead to hypercalcemia. Excess calcium can harden blood vessels, damage the kidneys and precipitate stone formation.
Are there any at-home tests that you can purchase to check your Vit D levels or do you need to have a blood test done medically?
CV: You don’t need a doctor. You can find out through grassrootshealth.net. They will send you a kit every 6 months as long as you are signed up. It’s $60 per test. That’s roughly what you would pay a doctor with Medicare,
There’s a wide range of opinion by medical doctors regarding the parameters for normal and safe levels of Vit D. We’ve seen a naturopathic doctor who insists that you be at 75. I view 40 as enough. Everyone has their own opinion, and there is really no absolute right number. It also varies among individuals depending upon whether they suffer from low Vit D levels, and whether the deficiency has been prolonged, resulting in negative health issues. In the latter case, you may need 75 levels for a while to ameliorate a deficient condition.
CB: Well, Cynthia Vann, you have certainly simplified much of the confusing and often contradictory advise when it comes to Vit D. Most of us definitely can benefit from more sun exposure than the time spent going to and from our car when shopping. From what you say, it is important to spend a healthy amount of time in the sun. Skin exposure is the surest and safest way to get our Vit D since the quantity of Vit D in food is minimal. You’ve provided some great tips to remove the sun fear factor and make the sun our friend and health ally.
CV: Plants make chlorophyllfrom sunlight. We make Vit Dfrom sunlight. I guess in some sense, you could say Vit D is our “chlorophyll.”
CB: I love that! Well thank you so much, Cynthia, for your time and your studies, and for all the good information that you share. I appreciate your love for learning and research.