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A Little Sunshine Goes A Long Way Toward A Healthy Heart

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That getting out in the sun has many health benefits is old news. But how exactly sunrays enhance our well-being has not been completely understood by scientists for the longest time.

In fact, warnings about excessive sun exposure because of potential skin damage and skin cancer have dominated the conversation. However, too little contact with the outdoors can also cause problems when it results in the deficiency of an all-important ingredient called vitamin D.

Men who were deficient in vitamin D were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke as their counterparts who had adequate levels.

Unlike other vitamins, vitamin D can be produced in the body by exposing the skin to sunlight. But that is not always guaranteed. Because so many people spend their daytime hours inside, the danger of becoming vitamin D deficient is now more widespread than ever.

Those who live in the northern hemisphere with fewer sunny days and the elderly who don't leave home as much are particularly at risk. Pregnant women and obese persons can also find it harder to meet their vitamin D needs.

Having a sufficient supply of vitamin D available is critical for a number of body functions, including the maintenance of bones, muscles and vital organs, especially the heart.

More recent research found that increasing levels of vitamin D can be helpful in the prevention of heart disease and related health issues.

One study from Harvard University concluded that men who were deficient in vitamin D were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke as their counterparts who had adequate levels. One reason could be that vitamin D plays a role in controlling blood pressure and preventing artery damage, the researchers say.

Other investigations have suggested that substantially more deadly heart attacks occur during the winter months than at any other time of the year, not because of cold weather but more likely because of reduced sunlight.

On the other hand, people who live in mountainous regions or spend long periods of time at high altitude and are exposed to greater ultraviolet-B (UVB) doses have on average a lower risk of heart disease, according to studies.

Those for whom sunshine is not always easy to come by should consider taking a vitamin D supplement. Be advised to consult with your physician what amounts are appropriate.

Taking supplements, however, should never be considered a substitute for healthy eating.

Nothing can be more health-promoting than sound diet choices. And there are plenty of foods that provide reasonably high doses of vitamin D, including fish, fortified dairy products and egg yolks, among others.

Together with a little extra effort to spend more time outside, these guidelines should keep most people from becoming deficient, with countless more positive side-effects to boot.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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