George Hamilton admits that he has been addicted to sunbathing for much of his life. The photo below (from: phoenix.fanster.com), shows him at the age of about 70. In spite of possibly too much sun exposure, he looks young for his age, in remarkably good health, and free from skin cancer. How come? Maybe his secret is vitamin D.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble pro-hormone; not actually a vitamin, technically speaking. That is, it is a substance that is a precursor to hormones, which are known as calcipherol hormones (calcidiol and calcitriols). The hormones synthesized by the human body from vitamin D have a number of functions. One of these functions is the regulation of calcium in the bloodstream via the parathyroid glands.
The biological design of humans suggests that we are meant to obtain most of our vitamin D from sunlight exposure. Vitamin D is produced from cholesterol as the skin is exposed to sunlight. This is one of the many reasons (see here for more) why cholesterol is very important for human health.
Seasonal depression is a sign of vitamin D deficiency. This often occurs during the winter, when sun exposure is significantly decreased, a phenomenon known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This alone is a cause of many other health problems, as depression (even if it is seasonal) may lead to obesity, injury due to accidents, and even suicide.
For most individuals, as little as 10 minutes of sunlight exposure generates many times the recommended daily value of vitamin D (400 IU), whereas a typical westernized diet yields about 100 IU. The recommended 400 IU (1 IU = 25 ng) is believed by many researchers to be too low, and levels of 1,000 IU or more to be advisable. The upper limit for optimal health seems to be around 10,000 IU. It is unlikely that this upper limit can be exceeded due to sunlight exposure, as noted below.
Cod liver oil is a good source of vitamin D, with one tablespoon providing approximately 1,360 IU. Certain oily fish species are also good sources; examples are herring, salmon and sardines. For optimal vitamin and mineral intake and absorption, it is a good idea to eat these fish whole. (See here for a post on eating sardines whole.)
Periodic sun exposure (e.g., every few days) has a similar effect to daily exposure, because vitamin D has a half-life of about 25 days. That is, without any use by the body, it would take approximately 25 days for vitamin D levels to fall to half of their maximum levels.
The body responds to vitamin D intake in a "battery-like" manner, fully replenishing the battery over a certain amount of time. This could be achieved by moderate (pre-sunburn) and regular sunlight exposure over a period of 1 to 2 months for most people. Like most fat-soluble vitamins, vitamin D is stored in fat tissue, and slowly used by the body.
Whenever sun exposure is limited or sunlight scarce for long periods of time, supplementation may be needed. Excessive supplementation of vitamin D (i.e., significantly more than 10,000 IU per day) can cause serious problems, as the relationship between vitamin D levels and health complications follows a U curve pattern. These problems can be acute or chronic. In other words, too little vitamin D is bad for our health, and too much is also bad.
The figure below (click on it to enlarge), from Tuohimaa et al. (2009), shows two mice. The one on the left has a genetic mutation that leads to high levels of vitamin D-derived hormones in the blood. Both mice have about the same age, 8 months, but the mutant mouse shows marked signs of premature aging.
It is important to note that the skin wrinkles of the mice on the left have nothing to do with sun exposure; they are associated with excessive vitamin D-derived hormone levels in the body (hypervitaminosis D) and related effects. They are a sign of accelerated aging.
Production of vitamin D and related hormones based on sunlight exposure is tightly regulated by various physiological and biochemical mechanisms. Because of that, it seems to be impossible for someone to develop hypervitaminosis D due to sunlight exposure. This does NOT seem to be the case with vitamin D supplementation, which can cause hypervitaminosis D.
In addition to winter depression, chronic vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk of the following chronic diseases: osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, hypertension, and atherosclerosis.
The fact that these diseases are also known as the diseases of civilization should not be surprising to anyone. Industrialization has led to a significant decrease in sunlight exposure. In cold weather, our Paleolithic ancestors would probably seek sunlight. That would be one of their main sources of warmth. In fact, one does not have to go back that far in time (100 years should be enough) to find much higher average levels of sunlight exposure than today.
Modern humans, particularly in urban environments, have artificial heating, artificial lighting, and warm clothes. There is little or no incentive for them to try to increase their skin's sunlight exposure in cold weather.
W. Hoogendijk, A. Beekman, D. Deeg, P. Lips, B. Penninx. Depression is associated with decreased 25-hydroxyvitamin-D and increased parathyroid hormone levels in old age. European Psychiatry, Volume 24, Supplement 1, 2009, Page S317.
P. Tuohimaa, T. Keisala, A. Minasyan, J. Cachat, A. Kalueff. Vitamin D, nervous system and aging. Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 34, Supplement 1, December 2009, Pages S278-S286.