Nearly 1 in 11 people in the US have diabetes. Another 86 million people have pre-diabetes – that’s more than 1 in 3 adults! Experts are now calling diabetes an epidemic…and based on these numbers I’d have to agree.
Sadly, complications are an unfortunate part of life for those diagnosed with diabetes. One very common problem is diabetic retinopathy (DR) which is the leading cause of blindness in the United States.
DR is sneaky. It develops slowly with no symptoms and eventually blots out vision. Although not curable, there is a way to slow the progression or potentially prevent this debilitating eye disease.
The solution is Vitamin D.
Humans manufacture Vitamin D from sunlight. But confusion around the sun’s harmful effects has everyone running for cover. We’re told to slather ourselves with layers of sunscreen to prevent the scourge of skin cancer and that being out in the sun without protection is dangerous.
Well, hold on to that thought. We’ll come back to it in a bit. First, some backstory on how Vitamin D helps.
The Vitamin D Connection
The retina is the lining in the back of the eye which picks up light. The light is then transformed into signals which travel through the optic nerve to the brain, providing vision. That’s what happens in a normal person. Or an abnormal person, as long as their eyes are functioning optimally.
A diabetic has high circulating blood sugar levels, and over time, the excess sugar causes inflammation in the blood vessels which feed the retina. A little inflammation is a good thing! It’s how your body reacts to (and begins healing from) injury. Because sugar in high amounts wreaks havoc in the body, it triggers an inflammatory response and desperately tries to heal itself from the sugary damage.
This chronic inflammation caused by a consistently high sugar load may cause some of the blood vessels that feed the retina to rupture and hemorrhage. These show up as “spots” which appear to float across the eye, but are actually blood blobs on your retina. If this occurs repeatedly, permanent blindness may result.
Managing blood sugar levels is crucial for diabetes management and for slowing diabetic retinopathy. However, recent research now points to low levels of Vitamin D as a contributing factor in the development of DR. That’s because Vitamin D aids in fighting inflammation. It helps by returning blood vessels to their normal diameter and preventing blockages, minimizing the risk of hemorrhages in the eye.
News Flash: The Sun PROTECTS You Against Skin Cancer
Time to shine some light on the “sun causes cancer” thing.
First off, do you know your Vitamin D status? Are you deficient in Vitamin D at all and if so, how much? That question can be answered easily with a blood test. If you’d rather not get tested through your doctor, there’s a simple finger prick test available that does not require a prescription or office visit. In fact, it can easily be done at home and mailed to a lab for testing. One such reliable test can be found at https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/testkit/.
Vitamin D levels below 31 ng/ml (nanograms per milliliter) increase the risk and progression of DR and most standards agree the 40-50 ng/ml range is best for DR and general health. If you’re below that, sunshine is your best source for upping your level.
This is where things get tricky. You need to be outside for a short time each day without sunscreen in order for your body to make Vitamin D from the sun. Sunscreen screws up the Vitamin D manufacturing process because it blocks the UVB light that’s required for this to take place.
If you worry about skin cancer, it might help you to know that a deficiency in Vitamin D dramatically decreases the body’s ability to fight and kill many types of cancer cells, including skin cancer. Ironically, it’s safe sun exposure that protects you against skin cancer…the key words being “safe sun exposure.”
You shouldn’t bake on a sunny beach for long periods of time. The Vitamin D Council recommends you limit the amount of sun exposure to ½ of the time that would normally cause your skin to turn pink without sunscreen. If you worry about the sun’s aging effects, use a natural sunscreen product on your face only…and for your eyes’ benefit, leave the remainder of your skin exposed to the sun per the council guidelines.
Of course, being out in the sun is only one part of the equation. The other is how much Vitamin D you can personally absorb from it. That’s more complicated. The elevation where you live, season, time of day, your indoor lifestyle, your diet, your genetics, and pigment of your skin all affect how much of the beneficial rays you actually soak in.
For example, a winter walk in the late afternoon may not fire up your Vitamin D factory much at all. But there’s an app for that! It’s called D Minder Pro which helps you track your daily absorption while warning you of excessive sun exposure leading to burns.
Regardless, you may still find it tough to get adequate sun exposure year-round to keep your DR under control. That means you need to take matters into your own hands for more support.
Nutritional Sources of Vitamin D
It’s very hard to get adequate Vitamin D from food sources but you can make a dent by eating fatty fish like salmon or egg yolks or raw milk.
Or you could take a supplement.
D3 supplements are widely available in natural food stores and although not quite as beneficial as pure sunlight is, it’s WAY better than deficiency. Once you know your Vitamin D level, seek out reputable resources and qualified individuals to guide you on the supplementation you should have. There are a variety of supplement forms, dosages, and blends to consider so be sure to ask for help!
For more information on Vitamin D Levels and how to read your test results visit http://www.vitamindcouncil.org/further-topics/i-tested-my-vitamin-d-level-what-do-my-results-mean/.
About the co-author: With an avid interest in the human body and its ability to heal, Susan R. Halama decided to make the interest a career. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Holistic Nutrition and a Graduate Certificate in Health and Wellness at the American College of Healthcare Sciences. Upon completion of her education, she intends to teach others how to achieve their health and fitness personal best.