Anyone who knows me well, will know that this is one of my favourite topics (and the subject of my Doctorate thesis). I think that I might be solar powered. I have so much more energy when the sun is shining, and whether or not this vitamin is responsible, it is essential we get enough of it. Vitamin D plays a key role in our bone health, we need it to prevent bone conditions such as bowed legs or rickets in children and bone weakness in the form of osteomalacia in old age. There is much speculation as to whether vitamin D plays a role in preventing other chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease and cancer as well as affecting mood, but there is currently no robust evidence to support these associations. As with all nutrients, you won’t see an improvement in health by consuming more than you need, but you will see a deterioration in health if you have less than you need.
Rickets used to be thought of as a condition we left behind in the in the 19th century, however we now spend so much time indoors, and when we are outside we cover ourselves up for fear of burning. Rickets has therefore made a comeback and poor vitamin D health is currently very high in some parts of the UK, especially in children, so it is important we look at our sun exposure and vitamin D intake to see if we should be consuming more whether from food or as supplement.
As we say goodbye to summer (although it feels like I did this a long time ago!) it’s time to think about boosting our vitamin D intake. Here are five ways you can get all the vitamin D you need:
- Get outside
In the summer months, the best source of vitamin D is from the sun’s rays on our skin. The UV rays that convert vitamin D in the skin are also the rays that can cause skin cancer, so cover yourself up or put sun cream on long before turning red to prevent burning and sun damage. Sun cream will prevent vitamin D synthesis in the skin, but you only need a little sun exposure on a small part of your uncovered/uncreamed skin such as your arms each day to keep your levels up. If you smother yourself head to toe with high factor sun cream, routinely cover yourself up or stay indoors, you won’t be getting any vitamin D from the sun, so it is important to consider other sources. Older people and people with dark skin also take longer to synthesise vitamin D, so they should take a vitamin D supplement.
Unfortunately, in the UK the sun’s rays are only the correct wavelength to synthesize vitamin D in our skin between late March/early April to the end of September. The rule of thumb is that if your shadow is longer than you are tall, the sun is too low in the sky to provide a source of vitamin D, so you need to look elsewhere.
- Oily fish
Oily fish, such as salmon, trout, mackerel and fresh tuna (not tinned) is an excellent source of vitamin D as well as providing essential fats.
- Other natural sources
Other natural sources of vitamin D include eggs and meat, and now some brands of mushroom are being grown under UV light and are a source of vitamin D, check out the label. Contrary to popular belief milk is not a source of vitamin D in the UK. In the US, Canada and some other countries milk is fortified with vitamin D, but not in the UK.
- Fortified foods
Many foods have vitamin D added to them by the manufacturer including yogurts, fat spreads, breakfast cereals, so check the label.
It is very unlike me to recommend taking dietary supplements, but it is hard to get all the vitamin D you need from food alone, so if you are worried about your intake/sun exposure it is worth taking a vitamin D supplement. Until recently in the UK only certain ‘at risk’ groups (including babies, pregnant and breastfeeding women, older people, people with dark skin and those covering their skin) were recommended to take a vitamin D supplement, as it was thought the rest of the population would get enough from summer sun exposure. The government now recommends however that in addition to these groups, we would all benefit from taking a daily vitamin D supplement, especially during the winter months, as the exposure we get during the summer is not enough to keep us going throughout the winter and it is often difficult to get all we need from our diet. Everyone over one year old is recommended to take 10µg vitamin D per day. Formula fed babies will get the vitamin D they need from the formula, but babies under one year old not receiving formula are advised to get 8.5 to 10µg per day from a supplement. If you are vegetarian or vegan is it really worth considering taking a supplement. Although there is a risk with taking too much vitamin D, as it is not excreted and builds up in your system, 10µg per day is considered safe.
Trying to work out how much you are getting is really difficult. It might sound from all of these sources that you consume quite a lot from your diet, but if you think what you are having each day your only source might be breakfast cereal, especially in the winter, and per portion the amount is you’re getting is relatively small. The advice is to take a supplement and then you know you’re getting enough.