Of all the vitamins, it seems like vitamin D has had the most air time of late. Certainly in our clinics, it’s the one patients seem to ask most about – are they getting enough, how do they know if they are getting enough and do they need to take supplements?
Vitamin D helps our bodies to regulate the crucial minerals Calcium and Phosphate in our bodies. We need these to keep our bones, teeth, nerves and muscles healthy.
A lack of vitamin D causes bone abnormalities – you might have heard of rickets? Rickets is a disease in children caused by a vitamin D deficiency.
For most of us, we actually get our vitamin D from exposure to sunlight. This means here in the UK, it can be a challenge to get enough sun during the long winter months. We all know the dangers of sun exposure and it’s a sad fact that skin cancers seem to be on the rise. There is a real delicate balance between enabling the sun to provide us with enough vitamin D and over-exposing our skin to the sun and increasing our risk of sun-related skin damage.
It is recommended that to allow enough exposure of the skin to the sun, that our forearms, hands or lower legs are uncovered, for short periods of time, without sunscreen. There is no set amount of time we need in the sun – and this is because we all make vitamin D at different rates. Darker skin colours seem to take longer to produce vitamin D and will need longer in the sun than those with lighter skin colours.
Being in the sun enough to cause the skin to burn is never recommended – and if you do start to feel burnt – you need to cover up or apply a good strength sunscreen (at least SPF 15). Increased time in the sun or allowing the skin to burn can increase the risk of developing sun-related skin damage or skin cancers.
There are some foods which can provide vitamin D such as red meat, liver, fortified foods, cereals and oily fish such as salmon or mackerel. However if you follow a diet that does not include meat – it can be especially challenging to make sure you get enough vitamin D.
Children over the age of one and adults need 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day.
Recently, the guidelines on vitamin D supplementation changed. Here in the UK it is recommended that babies from birth to the age of one are given a daily supplement containing up to 10 micrograms of vitamin D. However if your baby is fed by formula, most of these have vitamin D and as such they would not need supplementation until they were having less than a pint (around 500ml) of formula feed. Children up to the age of four should also be given a daily supplement.
There is now advice that adults should also have a supplement during winter months, when we are less able to get our fix of sunshine.
It is also worth considering those who are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency – and primarily these are people who do not get much sun exposure. Whether that be due to immobility or being housebound, or those who choose to cover up most of their body with clothing.
You can get too much vitamin D – and this can cause an increased build up of calcium. Although we need calcium to keep our bones strong, actually too much can weaken our bones and cause heart and kidney problems.