Vitamin D: The big D-bate…

Introduction

Vitamin D is a vitamin that has recently received a huge amount of interest in the media. However it can be hard to tell fact from fiction, and honest advice from selling techniques. Here the aim is to give you the full picture and answer all your questions on the truth behind the new “Super Nutrient”: Vitamin D.

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, naturally present in a few foods and added (via fortification) to others.  However our body’s main source of vitamin D is from sun light: this means vitamin D is actually classified as a hormone. Vitamin D is produced in our body when UV rays from the sun come into contact with our skin; this results in a number of complex reactions, which eventually lead to the production of vitamin D.

Why do I need vitamin D?

Vitamin D is an essential hormone for all humans and is especially important for bone growth and repair. It also ensures that our bodies are able to absorb enough calcium to promote healthy bones and teeth. Without enough vitamin D, babies and children are at a greater risk of developing a bone condition called rickets. Adults who have vitamin D deficiencies are at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis, osteomalacia and bone fractures.

Vitamin D has also been shown to be an important factor in supporting the immune system (which may go some way to explaining why we become ill during the winter months), as well as being linked with the reduced risk of certain cancers. Extensive research looking into other possible effects of vitamin D deficiency is currently ongoing.

Without question vitamin D is an essential nutrient and it is important that the population receives an adequate supply.

How do I get Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is found in foods such as: oily fish such as salmon, sardines and trout and in very small amounts in foods such as eggs and meat. Additionally, in the UK, foods such as breakfast cereals and  margarine are often fortified with vitamin D.

However, our body’s main source of this hormone is from the sun. How much we produce is heavily dependent on the strength of UV ray exposure, the time of day and the time of year. Additionally other factors affecting your vitamin D production are: the colour of your skin, your skin’s exposure to the sun (whether you cover up a lot or wear a lot of sun cream), air pollution, your location in the UK, your job and many other factors.

The general recommendation is to: get out in the sun for around 20 minutes on most days before you apply sun screen between the hours of 10.00am and 3.00pm and within the months of April to September. This is thought to be enough time boost our vitamin D stores and to obtain enough to carry us through the winter months.

Keeping it safe:

It is clear that increased exposure to the sun has been linked to skin cancer and therefore it is important that anyone trying get enough vitamin D, should also take precautions not to burn. Exposing the arms and face for around twenty minutes (during the hours and months described above) should be just long enough to get enough vitamin D without causing any skin damage from the sun. After this length of time, it is advised to apply sun cream if you are staying in the sun. Additionally, sunbathing is not essential for vitamin D production and much shorter times in the sun have been associated with efficient production of vitamin D.

Who may need a supplement?

Generally speaking the average population, as long as sufficient sun exposure is obtained, should not need to take a vitamin supplement.

Those that do need a supplement may be:

  • Babies and children – who have particularly high nutrient needs and who, additionally, do not get a great deal of exposure to sunlight. For more information on the vitamin D needs of babies and children please see here.
  • Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers – will have higher requirements for this nutrient than the general population, as they will be passing on this important nutrient to the developing foetus, as well as ensuring they are getting enough for themselves.
  • The elderly – as we get older, our skin gets less efficient at making vitamin D, so as we age a supplement may be necessary.
  • Populations with darker skin – this includes those of Asian, African, Afro-Caribbean and Middle-eastern origin. This is because it is harder for the UV rays to penetrate those with darker skin tones.
  • Those who are covered up – those covering up the majority of their skin for religious or cultural beliefs will absorb less vitamin D due to the fact that the skin has less surface area for sun exposure.
  • Additionally, anyone who finds that they spend very little time outside, especially during the summer months, may benefit from Vitamin D supplements.

If you are worried about a deficiency you can ask your doctor to test your blood levels of vitamin D.

What supplements should I take?

If you are concerned that you may be deficient, it is a good idea to check your vitamin D status before taking any supplements. This can be done at your local GP clinic or with your health visitor, hospital or nurse. It should not be done at high street stores or with over the counter self test kits, unless recommended by a hospital or GP. However it is possible to order a bona fide “self-test kit” from Birmingham NHS (http://www.vitamindtest.org.uk/) to check your vitamin D stores from the safety of your own home. Make sure you follow the instructions carefully.

Otherwise, if you fit into any of the above groups and feel you may be at risk, you may decide to take a vitamin D supplement such as a 10mcg daily supplement.  Ask your local pharmacy, GP, or health visitor to recommend the best vitamin D supplement for your age and stage. For more information see here for vitamin D supplements for your child.

Please feel free to contact SR Nutrition here for further questions or advice.

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