Are you getting enough of ‘the sunshine vitamin’? The vitamin D debate.
Back in November 2014 the National Institute for Health Care Excellence (NICE) released public health guidelines regarding the importance of vitamin D to our health. The guidelines also recommend raising awareness about the importance of vitamin D supplements. Professor Mike Kelly, Director of the NICE Centre for Public Health, said: “Around 10 million people in England may have low vitamin D status and so could be at risk of health problems – and they may not know it. People with darker skin are particularly at risk – during winter months nearly 75% of adults from Asian or African and Caribbean backgrounds may have low vitamin D levels. People who are over 65 years old are another group at risk of having low vitamin D levels, and so are also at risk of conditions like osteomalacia – soft bones.”
The NICE statistics of 10 million people in the U.K. translates to one in five adults and one in six children, so this is a very common issue. It appears that Vitamin D deficiency is not just a U.K. problem either, but a worldwide issue, with around 1 billion people across the globe experiencing inadequate levels.
It is likely that a more sedentary lifestyle has been a major factor in this problem. It is also possible that increased use of sun block and other ‘safe in the sun’ measures in the summer months have resulted in reduced levels of vitamin D in the general population. This is because we make a form of vitamin D called cholecalciferol, or D3 from cholesterol when our skin is exposed to sunlight, but for 6 months of the year, from mid-October to the beginning of April, there is no sunlight at the correct wavelength for our skin to create vitamin D. This means we rely heavily on vitamin D stores built up over the spring and summer to see us through the winter.
We can also get vitamin D from our diet in the form of D3 or vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol). Food sources include fish, eggs, butter, cheese, leafy green vegetables and fortified foods. But it seems that in the winter months many of us are simply not getting enough. Osteomalacia is a problem that commonly afflicts elderly people because they often don’t get enough sun exposure. This is especially true of those in residential homes. Its symptoms are not just soft bones but also muscular pain and muscle weakness. Vitamin D deficiency in children can cause Rickets, resulting in bone growth deformities. This is because in the body Vitamin D has an important role in the absorption and metabolism of calcium and phosphorous. It maintains and regulates blood levels of calcium by increasing its absorption from food and reducing its loss through urination. This helps to keep calcium in the body and stops it from being robbed from your bones.
Vitamin D is also involved in brain function and supplements may alleviate low mood and some forms of depression including Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is common in the winter months when vitamin D stores are low. It is also important to the function of the immune system, and studies have shown it can help to improve resistance to colds and flu. Significantly, supplementing with vitamin D has been shown in many clinical studies to reduce the risk of respiratory tract infections, and to lessen their severity and duration.
The NICE guidelines laid out in 2014 recommended that free access to vitamin D supplements should be increased, and that all adults living in the UK should be encouraged to take a daily supplement throughout the year. In conclusion, it is a very sensible idea for many of us, especially anyone at risk of vitamin D deficiency (such as people with dark skin, obese people and the elderly) to boost their levels through one of the readily available D3 supplements on the market, which include liquids, oral sprays, capsules and tablets. This is especially true in the dark winter months, when for many of us, stores of vitamin D in our bodies are low.
Signs of vitamin D deficiency can manifest in common health conditions such as frequent coughs and colds, tiredness and fatigue, low mood, achy muscles and poor bone and tooth health. If you suffer from any of these symptoms regularly, it could be a sign that you’re lacking in the ‘Sunshine vitamin!’