A winter’s tale
Sunlight doesn’t just feel good, it’s the number-one way we make vitamin D. When UV rays (specifcally the type called UVB) reach our skin, they create a reaction within it that causes D formation. ‘But from November to March in the UK, levels of UVB aren’t high enough,’ says Dr Benjamin Jacobs of the Vitamin D Mission at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore. As we can only store vitamin D for about 30 days, many of us will be defcient. It’s estimated that 50% of white Britons and up to 90% of those with darker skins (who need higher doses of UV) could be lacking.
Unexplained aches and pains
While being slightly low in vitamin D doesn’t cause symptoms, if levels get too low you can start to suffer some signs. ‘But they are vague and could relate to many other things, which is why people often don’t spot them,’ says Dr Helga Rhein, an Edinburghbased GP with a keen interest in vitamin D. ‘They can include unexplained tiredness, vague aches and pains in the legs and back, and just feeling a bit low.’
How much is enough?
Your supplement should provide 10 micrograms – although confusingly, it’s sometimes listed as a measurement called iu – in which case you need at least 400iu a day. Try taking Vitamin D3 (£7.95, healthspan.co.uk) or, if you don’t like taking pills, you can use sprays that you spritz under your tongue, such as Better You DLux 1000 (£6.95, betteryou.com). Don’t exceed 25mcg (1000iu) a day without a doctor’s advice.
Children in need
The number of rickets diagnoses (a condition where bones don’t form correctly) has increased fourfold in the past 15 years – and low levels of vitamin D are a contributing cause. ‘Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for children,’ says Dr Jacobs. ‘Many of their “growing pains” could also be related to a lack of vitamin D. In babies, defciency can be even more harmful, leading to heart problems and convulsions.’ The NHS now recommends that every child from 6 months to 5 years should either take a vitamin D supplement or eat D-fortifed foods. The recommended dose for children is 7-8.5 micrograms (or 280-340iu). Try a product like Ddrops (£9.99, boots.com), which can be easier for children to take than supplements. ‘Pregnant and breastfeeding women should always supplement, too,’ says Dr Jacobs. ‘We know that babies born to women with low D levels are the ones more likely to have defciency issues, such as heart problems.’ We’ll also just mention here that US researchers have discovered that women with healthy vitamin D levels experience a less painful labour.
The NHS now says every child from six months to fve years needs to up vitamin D levels
No test required
While a blood test can tell you if your vitamin D levels are low, neither of our experts say you have to have one. ‘I used to test everyone – but now, for most people, I say, if you think you’re at risk, just take a supplement and see if symptoms improve,’ says Dr Rhein. If you do want an offcial diagnosis though, you can use the service at vitamindtest.org.uk (which is linked to the NHS – there is a £28 fee). Your GP is unlikely to offer testing if you don’t have symptoms.
D is also for diet
While supplements are an easy way to raise D levels, it does appear naturally in many foods like oily fsh, milk, egg yolks. ‘But it’s hard to eat enough of those to get the full amounts you need,’ says Dr Rhein. ‘During the winter, in Scotland for example, you’d have to eat oily fish three times a day to reach it.’ But, companies are now adding vitamin D to foods in a bid to boost our doses. Many kids’ cereals already include added D, it’s also in yogurts and some milks – and the newest creation is D-boosted mushrooms. Launched late last year by Marks & Spencer, the Active Health mushrooms, £1.20, are grown in sunlight, which boosts the natural levels of the nutrient. One serving of three of these mushrooms provides your daily D dose.
Don’t overdo it!
There’s a fine line between exposing your skin to the sun enough to make vitamin D and exposing it too much and upping your risk of skin cancers. People with white skin need about 5-15 minutes of sun exposure a day in summer, darker skins may need 30-40 minutes. ‘The best time for exposure is any point in the day when your shadow is shorter than your height,’ says Dr Rhein. ‘That’s when you’ll create the most D in the shortest time.’ This is, however, also likely to be the point when you’re more likely to burn – and it’s vital that never happens. If your skin is so sensitive that even 5-10 minutes of sun at lunchtime will burn you, focus on getting your D from supplements all year.
Recent research found that healthy levels of vitamin D lead to less painful labour
Roll up your sleeves
When Australian researchers looked at what made the biggest difference as to whether someone was defcient or not, they found the answer in clothing. People who regularly dressed in T-shirts or shorts had the highest levels. ‘We weren’t expecting something so simple to make such a huge difference,’ says Professor Michael Kimlin from the Queensland University of Technology. ‘Simply wearing short sleeves or rolling up your sleeves when you’re out and about will raise your levels.’
While research is ongoing into quite how powerful vitamin D is, studies have discovered links between healthy levels and lower risk of heart disease, better bone health, increased immunity, lower risk of multiple sclerosis and possibly lower risk of cancer. However, our favourite is almost certainly the Leiden Longevity Study, which found that the more vitamin D people had in their system, the more likely they were to live to past 90. That sounds good to us.