What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a vital nutrient and is one of the thirteen vitamins required for good health. It is one of only four fat soluble vitamins which, unlike water soluble vitamins, are ones which can be stored in the body’s fatty tissues and liver. We therefore don’t need to consume it, or be exposed to vitamin D sources daily as our body does have a reserve which can be used as and when the body requires it.
Why is vitamin D so important?
One of the biggest roles of vitamin D in the body is that it helps the absorption of calcium. Without vitamin D, calcium from food and supplements cannot be absorbed and thus one of the most well-known diseases associated with vitamin D deficiency is rickets (soft, thin bones) and osteoporosis. Dairy products (including goats’ milk, yogurts and cheese) are a source of calcium, so by incorporating these products into your diet, you can be assured that your calcium requirements can easily be met, meaning your Vitamin D can be efficiently absorbed.
Over the last few years however, scientists have discovered that vitamin D actually plays a far greater role in our health than first realised and has shown to be vital in healthy immunity, respiratory function and cardiovascular health. Vitamin D deficiency has also been increasingly linked to some cancers, mental health problems and diabetes as well as autism. It is therefore not hard to see why this little vitamin is now currently in the spotlight.
Symptoms and signs of vitamin D deficiency
Not everyone with a deficiency in vitamin D will experience symptoms and sometimes the symptoms which can occur, can be very subtle so may not be noticed immediately. The most common symptoms associated with vitamin D deficiency are joint, muscle or bone pain which can lead to a feeling of weakness in the affected areas, as well as general tiredness and fatigue. There is also a big link between vitamin D deficiency and depression, so if you are suffering from prolonged low mood or depressive symptoms this is something that may be worth investigating further.
Who is most at risk of deficiency?
Although vitamin D deficiency can occur in anyone and across all age groups, there are some people within the population who are at an increased risk of deficiency. These include:
- Children under the age of 5
- People aged 65 and over
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women
- People who have minimal sun exposure, for example those people who are housebound, those who infrequently spend time outdoors and those people who cover up their skin with clothing
- People with darker skin such as those from Asian, African or African- Caribbean origin have more melanin in their skin compared to those with fairer skin. This increased melanin slows down vitamin D production.
Where can we get vitamin D from?
An estimated 90% of our vitamin D requirements comes from sunlight, which does present a little problem for those of us residing in the UK. This fact goes some way in explaining why deficiency rates of vitamin D are
high in the UK. With the increased awareness of skin cancer, people are now more proactive in their sun cream usage especially with children. This of course is vital and necessary, but is not great if used excessively or for just small ten minute outings as it stops vitamin D production. A small amount of sun exposure without sun cream protection is OK, but make sure you cover up and use sun cream before you turn red or begin to burn.
British winters are particularly problematic due to reduced sunlight and the fact that between October and April time, the sunlight we do get is of the wrong wavelength to actually create vitamin D in the skin. This is why vitamin D deficiency increases during the winter months, especially in those already in the ‘at risk’ groups stated above.
Most other vitamins and minerals can be gained abundantly through the foods we eat, however this is sadly not the case when it comes to vitamin D. We are not able to get all of the vitamin D we need from food sources alone, which is why some sun exposure or even supplementation may be necessary. However knowing which foods are good sources of vitamin D and increasing these in your diet will definitely help. Here are the top four for you to add to your shopping basket:
- Eggs. Vitamin D in eggs is found only in the yolks so make sure you eat the entire egg!
- Oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines and trout. Wild fish has a higher source of vitamin D than farmed fish, however, unfortunately it is farmed fish that is most commonly sold in the UK, but do keep a look out for wild varieties as it is available and far tastier too!
- Portobello mushrooms. Only mushrooms which are exposed to sunlight when growing are good sources of Vitamin D and Portobello ones are the highest vitamin D source in the mushroom world.
- Fortified Foods. These include milk, some cereals, yogurts, soya products, cheese and spreads which often have vitamin D added to them. However the amounts of vitamin D present in these types of products can vary.
Do we need to take a vitamin D supplement?
The Department of Health currently advises that some specific at risk groups should take a vitamin D supplement. They currently recommend that all those aged 65 or over, pregnant and breastfeeding women and those people who get minimal or no sun exposure should take a daily dose of 10 micrograms of vitamin D. Babies and young children aged 6 months to five years should also be taking vitamin D in supplement form (vitamin D drops), with recommended dosage for this age group being 7-8.5 micrograms.
There is however likely to be a change in these guidelines in the next year as they are currently being reviewed. It is very likely that new guidelines will be published advising that ALL UK residents should take a daily 10 microgram vitamin D supplement as a precaution.
We may not be able to change the weather, but we can start to be more proactive in ensuring we take steps to gradually increase our vitamin D levels. Knowing how important sunlight is to our body’s production of vitamin D may even help you justify booking that exotic sunny holiday during the coming winter months!!
NOTE: If you think you may be at risk of vitamin D deficiency then please contact your GP.