Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. This means that it’s dissolved and stored in the fat in your body. It doesn’t appear naturally in a lot of foods but it’s added to some and it’s also available as a dietary supplement.
The main role of vitamin D is to help your body absorb and maintain a healthy level of calcium. This keeps your bones and teeth strong so they maintain their structure. Without enough vitamin D you may develop soft, thin, brittle bones and conditions such as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.
The following groups of people are at particular risk of becoming vitamin D deficient.
- Children aged between six months and four years.
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- People aged 65 and over.
- People with darker skin.
- People who aren’t exposed to much sunlight. This could be if you cover your skin for cultural reasons. If you stay indoors for long periods. Or if you live in an area that doesn’t get much sunlight.
In response to vitamin D related conditions, such as rickets and scarlet fever, being on the rise in the UK, The Vitamin D Mission has been launched. It aims to raise awareness about the benefits of vitamin D and put an end to vitamin D deficiency in children under five.
Try their calculator to check if your child is getting enough vitamin D.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard ‘optimal’ level for every individual. The UK Department of Health recommends that some groups take a supplement in order to reach sufficient levels of vitamin D.
- If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, take a 10µg vitamin D supplement every day.
- Children between six months and five years old should get 7µg of vitamin D each day. This can be in the form of drops. This includes babies that are being breastfed. However, if you’re feeding your baby with 500ml or more of infant formula each day, they won’t need to take a supplement. This is because infant formula is fortified with vitamin D.
- If you’re 65 or over and don’t get much sun, take a daily supplement of 10µg of vitamin D.
Foods that contain vitamin D include:
- oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and pilchards
- eggs, meat and milk – although only small amounts
- margarine, some cereal, some yogurts and infant milk – these have added or are ‘fortified’ with vitamin D
Vitamin D is also produced naturally by your body when your skin is exposed to sunlight. When ultraviolet (UV) B rays in sunlight hit your skin, they trigger a reaction that creates vitamin D. That’s why it’s important to get some sun exposure when you can.
Unfortunately, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ level of exposure to the sun that’s recommended. Factors such as season, time of day and latitude all play a part. Age, skin colour and how much skin you have exposed also affect how much vitamin D your body produces. A few minutes outside in the sun during the middle of the day, without sunscreen, is enough to give you the vitamin D you need. However, don’t stay out in the sun long enough for your skin to redden. Too much sun can damage your skin and cause early ageing and even skin cancer.
This handy calculator can help you work out an approximate amount of time you need to spend in the sun for the equivalent of 25µg. Current UK guidelines recommend that adults take no more than 25µg of vitamin D per day.
If you don't get much sun exposure and particularly during winter months, taking a vitamin D supplement of up to 25µg a day can help to make sure you get enough. Have a chat with your pharmacist first if you’re thinking of taking vitamin D supplements long-term. Just making the effort to get outside a bit more could be enough to top you up.
- Vitamin D. National Institute of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. ods.od.nih.gov, reviewed June 2011
- Vitamin D. The British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, reviewed February 2013
- Vitamin D – advice on supplements for at risk groups. Gov.UK. www.gov.uk, published 2 February 2012
- Pearce SHS, Cheetham TD. Diagnosis and management of vitamin D deficiency. BMJ 2010; 340:b5664. doi: 10.1136/bmj.b5664
- Vitamin D expert review. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2010. www.nice.org.uk
- Vitamin D. The British Association of Dermatologists. www.bad.org.uk, accessed 19 March 2014
- Safe upper levels for vitamins and minerals: Expert group on vitamins and minerals. Food Standards Agency, May 2003, www.food.gov.uk
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Produced by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2014.
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