Hep B Blog

Summertime Strategies to Protect Your Liver: Enjoy a Dose of Sunlight and Vitamin D

Grace Wong, associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Grace Wong, associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Catching 15 minutes of sunlight three times a week and drinking water instead of sugary drinks are two of the easiest and most natural ways to protect against liver cancer and other types of liver damage when you live with hepatitis B.

Sunlight doesn’t cure hepatitis B, but it spurs production of vitamin D, which appears to help prevent a number of cancers and other liver problems.

The liver appears to play a vital role in metabolizing vitamin D, and when you have healthy vitamin D levels, your body’s cells behave and grow normally. But when you have a vitamin D deficiency, communication between your cells breaks down, which can lead to abnormal cell growth and cancer.

Studies are finding that hepatitis B patients who have vitamin D deficiency often have higher viral loads and rates of liver damage, cirrhosis and cancer, which is troubling because one-third to one-half of people with hepatitis B are deficient in vitamin D.

A recent study, published in the Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, followed 426 hepatitis B patients for more than 13 years. Those with vitamin D deficiency had twice the number of “clinical events,” including liver damage and cancer, than patients with normal vitamin D levels.

Patients with normal vitamin D levels were also twice as likely to seroconvert and lose HBeAg and develop “e” antibodies (called HBeAg seroconversion), which leads to lower levels of hepatitis B virus (viral load) in their bodies.

But don’t reach for those vitamin D supplements just yet. Grace Hong, associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and lead author of the study, says supplements aren’t needed unless patients have serious vitamin D deficiencies.

“I advise my hepatitis B patients to make life style modification to increase their vitamin D levels,” she said, which includes getting outside to soak in some sunlight and consuming foods rich in vitamin D and juices and milk fortified with vitamin D. “Prescribing vitamin D would only be indicated when there is evidence of vitamin D deficiency and much reduced bone mineral density,” she added.

While most people get the vitamin D they need through sunlight, they also get it from fatty fish, fish liver oil, eggs, and prepared foods fortified with vitamin D, such as breakfast cereal.

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommends sunlight exposure and the following daily recommended dietary allowance of vitamin D:

  • 15 micrograms (μg) per day or 600 international units (IU) for children, teens and adults up to age 70, including women who are pregnant or lactating.
  • And 20 μg per day or 800 IU per day for seniors age 71 and older.

While 90 percent of the body’s vitamin D comes from sunlight, the amount of time in the sun needed to generate vitamin D is actually quite small. In northern areas, such as Boston, with limited sunlight, only 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure three times a week is needed during winter, and only five to 10 minutes in summer. Longer exposure to the sun does not increase vitamin D production.

In addition to sunlight, remember to avoid sugary drinks on hot summer days. A daily sugary drink increases the risk for fatty liver disease, which can exacerbate a hepatitis B infection. Read more about how sugary drinks harm your liver.

Summer is also a great time to eat healthy foods. Learn more about how much protein you really need in a healthy diet.

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