Vitamin D – Yet Another Health Worry to Keep Us Awake At Night!


By Fiona Kirk

In addition to ensuring that our diet is bursting with goodness and we factor regular exercise into our ever-more-hectic lifestyles to give us the best possible opportunity of living a long and healthy life, is our vitamin D status another challenge we have to take on board?

‘Fraid so! It is estimated that somewhere between 30% and 100% of us are deficient, globally; it largely depends on your age, where you live, how much sunshine you get in a day and to a degree, how your diet looks. Scientists are not sure exactly why this worldwide pandemic has occurred but what is clear is that a myriad of health concerns which range from high blood pressure, a greater susceptibility to heart disease, strokes and certain cancers to type 2 diabetes, mental health conditions, brittle bones and a range of autoimmune diseases are linked to deficiency.

Doesn’t make great reading but from a personal perspective, forewarned is forearmed and whilst sensational headlines can pitch us into a blind panic, there is plenty we can do to ensure we are covered. There is an old Italian proverb; Dove no va il sole, va il medico (where the sun doesn’t go, the doctor does) which is proving to be pretty close to the mark.

Let the Sunshine In!

Sunshine is our very best friend and a vital source of vitamin D. It is produced by our skin when we are in strong sunlight and studies of traditional people living in East Africa gives us a clue to what was probably ‘normal’ when we first appeared on the planet. These people all have dark skin which gives them built-in sun protection, spend most of the day outdoors but seek shade whenever possible. Their skin and sun habits are similar to our ancestors who lived in the same environment but as we moved north to colder climates we weren’t exposed to the same levels of strong sunlight, our skin became paler and vitamin D levels dropped. However, for centuries we still spent a great deal of time working outdoors and even in many of the most northern parts of the globe we ate a lot of oily fish, the richest food source of vitamin D.

But, as industrialisation flourished and technology developed, the pale amongst us increasingly worked indoors and sadly fish didn’t feature as often in our diets. And then came sunscreens. Skin cancer was on the rise and governments and health experts ensured that we all became crucially aware of the dangers of unprotected sun exposure. Valid advice but like so many health scares, over-asserted. In a matter of only a few years we were lathering tub-loads of factor 20, 30 or 50 on our pale skins and making our little darlings wear protective clothing on the beach whilst their southern counterparts were running around with little or no clothes on. Cynical perhaps but like so many things in the world of diet and health, too little can be as damaging as too much – the body likes balance. The only thing that has been proven to cause damage is SUNBURN, not SUNSHINE.

A number of studies indicate that muslim women who wear burqa have amongst the highest levels of deficiency even when vitamin D-rich foods are included in their diet. And interestingly, a huge percentage of the research into vitamin D deficiency has been undertaken in Scandinavian countries where hours of sunlight from November to March are woefully short. Furthermore, a marked increase in deficiency resulted from the promotion of ‘never exposing the skin to direct sunlight without sun protection’ in Australia. The message is clear – we need sunlight.

Vitamin D is actually a pro-hormone rather than a vitamin and understanding this is important. Hormones are produced naturally within the body, vitamins must be obtained through our diet. The body can make most of the vitamin D it needs as long as we get sunshine into our lives – the action of sunlight on our skin produces a substance which is converted by the liver to yet another substance then further converted in the kidneys to the active and usable form of vitamin D. Daily consumption of D-rich foods or D-fortified foods increase levels. However statistics indicate that alarming numbers are simply not getting enough.

So What Can You Do?

It was previously thought that as little as 5-10 minutes of sun exposure on arms, legs and face three times a week without sunscreen between 11am and 2pm during the spring, summer, and autumn should provide a light-skinned individual with adequate vitamin D and allow for some storage of any excess for use during the colder, darker months with minimal risk of skin damage – those with dark skin require twice or three times the exposure. However, recent studies suggest that 20 minutes a day, without sunscreen, exposing around 40% of the body is required to help us reach near-optimal rather than merely adequate levels. BUT NEVER LET YOURSELF BURN. The minute your skin turns a very light pink (usually around 20 minutes for fair-skinned people), seek the shade or cover up. Once you have a light tan, you can extend this to around 30-40 minutes; it is only during this 20-40 minutes without sunscreen that vitamin D is produced. Thereafter,  protection is vital, preferably from a natural, mineral-rich sunscreen with no UV chemical absorbers.

Daily exposure of your skin to the sun and a diet packed with foods rich in vitamin D (oily fish; particularly tinned salmon, ‘happy’ eggs and fortified milks) are crucial. You may also wish to have your D levels checked. A simple blood test available at your doctor’s surgery measures the level of 25 hydroxy-vitamin D, the chemical formed in the liver during the process that converts sunlight into vitamin D and if the sunshine and the D-rich foods don’t see you reaching the mark, supplementation may be required (always supplement with the D3, cholecalciferol form and opt for products that include vitamin K2). And, ensure that your diet is packed with antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits to reduce the possibility of sun damage – particularly when on holiday in sunnier climes and eat lots of ‘pink’ shellfish (prawns, lobster, langoustines etc) which are rich in the plant chemical, astaxanthin which acts as an powerful internal sunscreen and provides good levels of Omega fats which further protect us.

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