What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a substance that your body turns into hormones, leading to a range of health benefits. Its main actions are to help build strong and healthy bones, and to make sure your intestine absorbs important nutrients. It can even help to improve brain development and function.
How do you get vitamin D?
You get vitamin D naturally in two ways. In your diet, oily fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel are the best sources. Fortified cereals and margarines also contain vitamin D, and small amounts are found in fish liver oils, shiitake mushrooms and egg yolk. But sunlight provides the best opportunity to boost our natural vitamin D levels. It gives out ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is made up of UVA, UVB and UVC rays. These vary in strength, and it’s the UVB rays that your body is able to convert into vitamin D. These rays are not around from mid-October to the beginning of April, so it’s important to boost your vitamin D levels in other ways.
Signs that your vitamin D levels may be low
Some people, even during the summer, don’t spend long enough outside to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D. Signs of low vitamin D levels can include fatigue, muscle ache, poor bone and tooth health, and constant colds. Ciaran was thirty-seven when he was first diagnosed with low vitamin D levels. “I had lots of aches in my lower back and legs and felt tired, but thought I was too young for it just to be part of the aging process. I was very surprised when the doctor told me what it was.” Following his diagnosis Ciaran was put on a temporary course of high dose vitamin D, and advised to take 10mcg of vitamin D supplements daily for the rest of his life.
What happens in more serious cases of vitamin D deficiency?
Vitamin D deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. It can lead to a lack of bone density, which in serious cases can cause conditions like rickets in children, and osteoporosis in adults. It can also increase the risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Who is most at risk of vitamin D deficiency?
If you’re stuck indoors for long periods, for example if you’re housebound, or have a desk job with long hours, or cover your skin for cultural reasons, you may be at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency. Other groups that may be at risk include:
- breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women
- babies, children and adolescents who do not spend much time outside
- people over the age of 65, as their skin is not as good at producing vitamin D
- people whose skin has little or no exposure to the sun, like those in care homes, or people who cover their skin when they are outside
- people with dark skin, from African, Asian, Afro-Caribbean and South Asian backgrounds
For at risk groups, the Department of Health recommends taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D throughout the year, especially if you have very little exposure to sunlight.
Do children and babies need to take vitamin D supplements?
As well as those in the at risk groups above, current guidance recommends that:
- all children aged one to four should have a 10mcg vitamin D supplement all year round, to make sure they’re getting enough vitamin D
- All babies under one year are also advised to have a daily 8.5-10mcg vitamin D supplement. However, babies who have more than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day don't need a vitamin D supplement as the formula milk is already fortified.
Boosting your vitamin D levels
While most of your vitamin D comes from sunshine, eating foods containing sources of vitamin D can also help. These include:
- breakfast cereals
- oily fish (such as salmon and sardines)
- egg yolk
If you think your vitamin D levels are low and you may be at risk, speak to your GP. They will ask you more about your habits and find out if you have any symptoms of deficiency, then decide whether to test your vitamin D levels. You can then buy vitamin D supplements over the counter if your GP decides this is necessary.
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