On this lovely sunny day it seems like a good idea to write about vitamin D the sunshine vitamin. It used to be thought that vitamin D was only important for building bones and teeth. However recent research has revealed that it plays many different roles in the body. Low levels are now recognized to contribute to poor immunity, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, MS and even dementia.
Recent headlines have brought to our attention the re-emergence of vitamin D deficiency conditions, such as rickets, the disease that makes children’s legs grow in a curved “bandy” manner1. This disease used to be common in poverty ridden Victorian times, but is this condition now due to poverty & the recession or modern lifestyle habits?
Although some foods do contain vitamin D, 90% of vitamin D is made by your body via exposure to the sun. So over zealous use of high factor sun creams, covering up in the sun as well as too much time spent indoors are all factors that have contributed to the recent rise in vitamin D deficiency.
Some sectors of the population, are more prone to deficiency, however it is now estimated that over ½ the British population are deficient in this very important vitamin! 2 Could you be one of these people?
In the UK, 1 in 6 people suffer from severe deficiency in winter and 9/10 South Asians are deficient 2. Darker skinned people need more sun exposure to get their requirements.
Requirements for vitamin D increase during pregnancy and lactation and as vitamin D is needed for growth. Babies born to mothers who have had several close together pregnancies are more likely to become deficient as the mother will not have had a chance to rebuild her body’s stores between pregnancies. For this reason, breastfed babies may need supplementation. Some medics are now calling for vitamin D screening during pregnancy and supplementation for newborns to prevent the resurgence of rickets3.
Other vulnerable people include anyone with malabsorptive states such as Crohn’s & celiac disease as well as some liver and kidney diseases & some medications. The elderly are particularly vulnerable as they are more prone to the above as well as being housebound. Strict vegans and vegetarians also run higher risks of becoming deficient as vitamin D is generally found in foods of an animal origin.
Symptoms of mild deficiency are hard to detect and include fatigue & muscle aches. Someone I know, a regular gardener, but someone who always covered up in the sun was recently diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency after months of different tests to investigate her permanent exhaustion. If you suspect you may be deficient ask your doctor for a test. You can also get one done privately or through a nutritional therapist. Be aware that there is still a lot of controversy about “normal” blood levels. Some authorities state that 80nmol/litre is optimum. Most people will fall well below this level.
So how do we get enough vitamin D? Current advice is to make sure you get at least 15 minutes in the sun without sun cream. Darker skins may need longer. Don’t stay in the sun if your skin is going red.
But what about the days when the sun doesn’t shine? i.e. most of the time in the UK particularly the north. This when supplementation may be advised. The most easily absorbed form is vitamin D 3. Up to 25 micrograms or 1000 iu is considered to be safe4, but always check with your health provider first if you suffer from any medicalconditions. Drops and micellised supplements may be better absorbed than tablets, particularly for the elderly and those with absorption problems. It’s also a good idea to take vitamin D with calcium if you are taking it to prevent or treat a bone related condition such as osteoporosis, osteomalacia or rickets.
Finally, don’t forget that you can get some vitamin D from foods: oily fish, eggs, liver and full fat dairy all contain vitamin D. According to some sources5 dried shitake mushrooms are also a good source of vitamin D2 which can be converted to D3, so risotto makes a good winter dish to boost levels.