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Fair weather friend or foe?

Thursday 19 May, 2011 by Cairín

Winter has suddenly set in, and while many of us are still busily unearthing dusty beanies, scarfs and gloves from under the bed, the sun has vanished leaving grey clouds and a chilling wind in its wake.

Offices are brimming with conversations by the coffee machine lamenting this sudden change in weather and a chorus of sniffling and coughing greets you in every room.

It's easy to survey this winter scene and decide to curl up and hibernate until the warmer weather begins to creep in again. The temptation to crank up the heater, recover the hot water bottle from its hiding place and avoid the wicked winter weather altogether is overwhelming.

But that would be a blunder. Note to all you winter weather side-steppers out there - shunning the wintry sun can cause deficiency in vitamin D, which is essential for strong bones, muscles and overall health.

But you can only get vitamin D when it's sunny, right? When the hot January days roll in, just grab a bikini and head to the beach to top up your levels of the sunshine vitamin. If you're finding yourself nodding as you read this, have I got news for you!

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun may well be the best natural source of vitamin D but it is also the main cause of skin cancer. Getting enough sun exposure for vitamin D is a balancing act that we need to juggle all year round.

There are times during the day or year when it is safe to go outside without the need for sun protection to help with vitamin D levels. This would normally be when the UV index is less than 3, such as in the early morning or late afternoon or during winter in the southern regions of Australia. People in northern regions need sun protection all year round as the UV is always high, even during the winter months.

Find out how much sun you need to help with vitamin D by checking out our How Much Sun is Enough resource so you know how to get the balance right where ever you are in Australia.

From May to August in Victoria, for example, the UV level is generally below three, so it's safe to go outside in the winter sun without sun protection, unless you're in alpine regions, near reflective surfaces, such as snow, or if you are outside for extended periods. If you have fair to olive skin, aim for 2-3 hours of sun exposure a week and try to spread your exposure over the week so that you don't get it all at once. If you have naturally dark skin, you will need 3-6 times this exposure.

Shuddering at the very thought of 2-3 hours outside this winter? Don't! It's easy to get your daily dose of D. Why not set up a lunchtime walking group? Make it the same day each week and encourage your friends and colleagues to come along. Plan a picturesque route around local parks and reserves, if you can, and work up a sweat so you need to roll up your sleeves. Or else, swap the gym for outdoor exercise instead. The crisp winter weather makes for perfect outdoor exercising conditions. And you won't have to contend with smelly locker rooms or emaciated gym junkies.

From September to April in Victoria, the UV level reaches extreme levels. Sun protection is always required and just a few minutes outside are enough to help with vitamin D. After only a short time in the sun, the skin stops making vitamin D so staying out longer won't increase your levels, but will increase your risk of skin cancer.

Using vitamin D as an excuse to top up your tan is just like a dieter eating a Big Mac with a diet coke. You're kidding yourself. But the scales don't lie and neither does your skin.

Skin cancer kills over 1,850 Australians each year. Given how the UV levels vary across the year in Victoria balance is definitely the key.

Check out the UV level for your local area on the SunSmart website and in the weather section of the daily newspapers. If its below three, then you know its safe to get some vitamin D.  

And if you haven't already heard about it, the free SunSmart iPhone app is a handy tool that allows users to find out if they are getting enough sun to help with vitamin D levels and alerts the user of their daily sun protection needs.

For more information about vitamin D and to find out more about population groups most at risk of vitamin D deficiency, visit http://www.sunsmart.com.au/vitamin_d.

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