At dawn, yogis face to the east, and honouring the rising sun, they salute it with 108 prostrations. These exercises, these sun salutations, have been performed in cultures all over the world: ancient and modern. Today, people rarely rise with the dawn to soak in the rays of the sun, but thousands flock to beaches and parks when the summer sun’s power is strongest, to bask in its warmth.
What is it about the sun that draws us under its spell, and yet at the same time makes us fearful of its power? We protect ourselves from its harmful ultraviolet radiation by sporting sunglasses and smearing ourselves with 30-block lotion. We have developed a love/hate relationship with that awesome power, but mostly we fear the sun. This fear has led us to demonize our first god, and take steps to shelter ourselves from its harmful aspects.
Like all powers, the sun can heal or harm. The ancient wisdom traditions knew both of these aspects of the sun, and treated it with caution and reverence. In China, the ancient Daoist came to know that the sun provides a healing energy; they called it sun chi. In India, the rishis worshipped the sun for its life giving qualities. In the West, we have long been warned about the danger the sun presents; its rays can cause cancer of the skin and create harmful free radicals that prematurely age us. But our sciences are rediscovering the many ways our sun can nourish us as well.
Our Healing Sun
The ultraviolet rays that are emitted by the sun indeed do have a power to damage us, if taken in excess. But in moderation, this same radiation can heal. The sun’s UV light is known to kill harmful molds, fungi, viruses and bacteria. Gil Hedley noted that our eyes are windows that allow this sterilizing light to bathe the arteries at the back of the eyes, where every two minutes all of our blood passes. This bathing of our blood in UV helps to kill harmful bacteria. At least, it will if we allow it to.
Our penchant for wearing sunglasses every time we step out of doors prevents the sun’s healing rays from reaching the back of our eyes. Our species evolved outside, not indoors, and without sunglasses. Perhaps Mother Nature knew best! Allowing our eyes some time in direct sunlight without being shielded may be an excellent way to tap into a natural healing mechanism that is available for free and without prescription.
Sunlight can also promote production of gamma globulin, increase white blood cell count, which helps us fight off infections, and enhance the oxygen carrying capacity of our red blood cells. But one of the best medicines that the sun bestows upon us is vitamin D.
Sun Chi & Vitamin D
There have been dozens of scientific studies over the last few years showing a remarkable range of benefits from vitamin D, and a frightening list of problems that occur when we are vitamin D deficient. At least 16 forms of cancer, including breast cancer, colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer may be preventable with optimum vitamin D levels. The further we live from the equator, the more prevalent cancer becomes. There is a direct correlation between the amount of sunlight we receive and cancer rates. A study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine, in 2009, found that 75% of Americans are vitamin D deficient, and this rate rises for Hispanics (90%) and African Americans (97%!).
Vitamin D is actually not a vitamin at all. Vitamins are substances that our bodies need, but cannot manufacture; we must obtain them through our diet. Vitamin D is more like a hormone that is produced in our skin, and from there is it is carried to our liver where it becomes a steroid called calcitriol. From the liver it is distributed to our intestines, bones and other tissues. Every cell in our body has receptors for vitamin D; it is used in making enzymes and proteins and affects more than 2,000 genes. It is anti-inflammatory and a regulator of insulin levels.
Vitamin D Deficiencies
From Science Daily’s list of studies on the effects of vitamin D deficiency we learn that not having enough vitamin D can play a role in, not just various forms of cancer but also:
– asthma, especially in African American children
– increased rate of falls and fractured bones in people over 65
– increased cardiovascular disease
– high blood pressure
– autoimmune diseases
– type 2 diabetes
– metabolic syndrome
– multiple sclerosis
– chronic pain and chronic fatigue
– and several other disorders
A very interesting study looked at the effects of vitamin D levels in pregnant women. Dr Carol Wagner of the Medical University of South Carolina, studied pregnant women who were given various levels of vitamin D supplements. Her studies show that vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy is a serious public health problem. However, women taking 4,000 International Units (I.U.) per day had significantly fewer preterm labours or births, and fewer infections. There were no side effects or problems from this level of dosage.
Doctor Wagner strongly recommends that all pregnant women receive 4,000 I.U. of vitamin D every day. But, how much is the right amount? Are there risks of overdosing? And what is the best way to get vitamin D?
Sources and Dosage
The most effective source of vitamin D is the sun. Exactly how much you need depends upon many factors: your age, your skin type, your body size, the time of day, the time of year, where you live and any disorders or diseases you have. Depending upon these factors, somewhere between 15 to 30 minutes of direct sunlight, without protection, 2 to 4 times per weeks should be sufficient to produce as much vitamin D as your body will allow. The body will never overproduce vitamin D. More frequent, and shorter exposures are more effective, and safer. The sun’s UV rays are blocked by glass, so you cannot stimulate vitamin D production when you are indoors or in a car.
The sun is powerful medicine and like all medicines should be taken in moderation and with respect. Check with your doctor to make sure that you know the safe levels for you. Exposure to the sun will also increase the amount of free radicals in your body, so make sure you stock up on antioxidants. Amazingly, there is an excellent source of free radicals that you can tap into while you are out in the sun: the Earth herself! Learn how to access Earth chi by reading the previous article in this newsletter.
We cannot always get what we need from the sun. People with darker complexions or living in the northern USA, Canada and most of Europe are too far north for the sun’s rays to stimulate production of vitamin D during the non-summer months. In these cases, we need to supplement our body’s vitamin D. Health Canada recommends between 200 and 600 IU per day, a level that many researchers say is way too little. Health Canada does admit that 2,000 IU per day is safe, but along with the US Department of Health, they are studying more recent research and expect to release new guidelines sometime late in 2010.
The vitamin D fortification found in foods such as milk and naturally in fish oils are only enough to bring us up to the 600 I.U. per day level. The only way to get more, when the sun is not strong enough or available, is through direct supplements. An article in the Globe & Mail reported that most researchers in this field are not waiting for Health Canada’s new findings and have been taking an average of 5,000 I.U. per day. Vitamin D is fat soluble, it will be stored in the body and can build up over time. Dr Lipman of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York, playing it safe, believes that over time, some people may suffer from some toxicity. If you take more than 5,000 I.U. per day, he suggests you have your blood levels checked every 3 months.
Although this is still controversial, a study by Cedric Garland of the Moores Cancer Center in San Diego showed no adverse or toxic effects to levels of 10,000 I.U. per day. Dr Garland personally takes 2,000 I.U. per day but believes that women need to take 6,000 I.U. per day to get to the blood level of the vitamin shown to be effective at suppressing breast cancer. If you are not sure what levels are right for you, talk to your doctor, or wait for the forthcoming new guidelines from Health Canada and the USA Department of Health.
Sun Chi & Earth Chi
Sun chi will never produce too much vitamin D. Treat the sun with respect, don’t over do your time in the sun, but do spend time under its gaze. Balance your time in the sun with time spent connected to the Earth. Through earthing (to generate the antioxidant levels we need to counteract the sun’s free radicals) and salutations to the sun in direct sunlight, we will be following the wisdom of the ancients. Sun chi and Earth chi are two therapeutic practices that have been largely forgotten in our modern culture. Both are free, effective and a very pleasant way to spend 30 minutes.
Take some time away from your busy day, find a park or a beach and reconnect to the Earth and sky. Take off your shoes, your socks, and roll up your pant legs and your sleeves. Your body and your mind will love it.
- — Remember Gil? We talked about Gil in Newsletter #3. You can view his fun talk on Fuzz here
- — Visit Science Daily and type in the search box “Vitamin D”. You will find dozens of recent studies showing the benefits of vitamin D, and the problems when we do not have enough.
- — Frank Lipman MD is the founder and director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City and the author of several books on renewing our health. His web sites has several studies cited.
- — See the study report at Science Daily.
- — See the article on Earth Chi in YinSights Newsletter #4
- — Globe & Mail Thursday, Jul. 22, 2010, Scientists Taking Vitamin D in Droves by Martin Mittelstaedt