Have You Had Your Dose of Sunshine Today?

A whopping 70 percent of American kids aren’t getting enough vitamin D, and such youngsters tend to have higher blood pressure and lower levels of good cholesterol than their peers, according to two new studies published this week in the journal Pediatrics. Low vitamin D levels also may increase a child’s risk of developing heart disease later in life, experts say.

Wow – 70 percent? I would not have guessed that. I know that the human body, when exposed to sunlight produces its own vitamin D and of course, we all know that milk is typically fortified with both A & D, but that almost three quarters of kids are deficient in the nutrient is definitely more than I would have expected.

I suppose this is due to several factors. One is that kids today drink less milk than we did as children and overall, they are not drinking enough. Why? I’m not certain – there are more beverage choices out there in general, for starters. And there are other drinks fortified with calcium that some children drink, like orange juice that do not contain Vitamin D. And for many kids, it’s just not cool to drink milk after a certain age. The main concern there is of course the need for calcium is also not being met, but that important source of vitamin D is another side effect. While I do think that a perfectly healthy diet can be achieved without milk or even animal products at all, milk is by far the most convenient way for kids to get the needed amounts of calcium and D.

The largest factor perhaps is that parents are more wary of sun overexposure. My kids stay out of midday sun entirely, unless they are coated in sunscreen. I can recall many a trip to Galveston, Texas as a child where we would be forced to put on some SPF 8 sunscreen in the morning and come back terribly burnt and blistered. Not only was decent sunscreen unavailable, but parents were unschooled in its proper use and why it is so important. While our parents may not have known the dangers back in the 1970’s, experts have long known that childhood burns are particularly menacing:

Severe childhood and teen-age sunburns are more than twice as likely to lead to skin cancer as severe sunburns later in life, researchers say.

Intense, blistering sunburns have long been linked to malignant melanoma, a potentially fatal form of skin cancer. Previous studies had found that children who had been seriously sunburned were at greater risk for melanoma than children who were not. But the new study is the first to show that the dangers are much greater when intense sunburns occur in adolescence than when they occur later in life.

It’s no wonder parents now keep their children from the sun as much as possible, but new studies are questioning the benefit of sheltering kids from the sun too much. Many experts now suggest limited daily sun exposure for children:

Also, parents should help their children get at least 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure daily without sunscreen. “Set your watch and then apply sunscreen after 15 minutes,” Melamed says.

Another reason for less sun exposure these days is the influence of video games, television and DVRs, and general lack of activity. This ties in to the childhood obesity problem as well, but one effect is a decreased production of the body’s vitamin D and resulting from that, the effects of that deficiency:

Children with the lowest vitamin D levels were more likely to have higher blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and low blood levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, the study found….

There was a clear association with cardiovascular risk factors. The 25 percent of youngsters with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 2.36 times more likely to have high blood pressure, 54 percent more likely to have low HDL cholesterol levels, 2.54 times more likely to have elevated blood sugar levels and 3.88 times more likely to have metabolic syndrome, a constellation of risk factors including obesity, high blood fats and high blood pressure.

Pretty scary stuff right there. So what does this tell us?

1) Drink your milk.

2) If you don’t or can’t drink milk, then consider a supplement with calcium, which will help the body metabolize the D.

3) Spend a little more time in the sun as a family – mom and dad need that D just as much as Bobby and Sally.

4) If you are at risk, consider getting tested for a deficiency.

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