With summer drawing to a close, it’s timely to focus on a unique nutrient known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, vitamin D. From late March/early April until the end of September, scientists estimate that sun exposure for 5-10 minutes, two to three times a week allows us to produce all the vitamin D we need from direct sunlight. However, during the winter months in the UK, these stores can run low and vitamin D deficiency is common as shorter daylight hours and inclement weather, combined with working indoors, mean that our exposure to direct sunlight decreases and can be insufficient to keep our levels topped up.
Why is vitamin D important? Although we call it a vitamin, vitamin D is considered a ‘pro- hormone’ – meaning that it is later converted to an active hormone – and it has many roles within the body.
It is essential in maintaining the health of bones, teeth and muscles as it helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. Vitamin D also helps to support the health of our immune, brain and nervous systems; regulates insulin levels, supports lung function and cardiovascular health; and is involved in every single cell within the body.
Winter and lack of sunlight is a common factor, but some of us are naturally more prone to deficiency. Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency vary between individuals but can include fatigue, becoming unwell more often, back pain, muscle pain, low mood and hair loss. Thankfully, sun exposure is not the only way we can get our recommended daily amount (RDA). Vitamin D can also be consumed in food and through supplementation.
Food sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, oily fish such as herring and sardines, fortified dairy products, eggs and some mushrooms. If you choose to take over-the-counter supplements, it’s important to note that adults need just 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day.
Diagnosing vitamin D deficiency is easy – a simple blood test can check your levels. If you are concerned that you may be lacking in vitamin D, your GP can organise a test and advise on your required intake if supplements are recommended.
5 tips for getting enough vitamin D
- Try to get a few minutes of mid-morning or afternoon sun exposure each day.
- Exercise daily – regular exercise, including a brisk walk or swimming, may help assist with the production of vitamin D.
- Consult your doctor if you are at risk of vitamin D deficiency (for instance, if you have a skin condition which prevents sun exposure) as you may be required to supplement with a higher dose.
- Eat foods rich in vitamin D, which include eggs and fatty fish such as herring, salmon or mackerel. Some dairy, nut, soy and tofu products are fortified with vitamin D but it is difficult to obtain enough vitamin D from diet alone.
- Always consult a healthcare professional before taking supplements as you need to know the dose suited to your body.