vitamin D

If you’re tired, achy all the time and generally feeling unwell, you could be in need of more vitamin D. Vitality’s Head of Clinical Services, GP Dr Dawn Richards, gives us the lowdown on the latest advice and whether you need more.

Government guidelines advise us all to consider taking a vitamin D supplement. But how do you know if you need more of the ‘sunshine vitamin’? Here are all the facts you need…

What is vitamin D and what does it do?

Vitamin D helps us to absorb calcium and phosphate and is vital for building strong bones, teeth and muscles. If deficient, children can develop bone deformities such as rickets, while adults can get osteomalacia, a condition that softens bones. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a growing list of other conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular disease and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) but the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recently concluded that as yet there isn’t enough evidence to fully support these claims.

What do the guidelines actually say?

We all need 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D a day. To ensure we’re getting enough, babies under one should take an 8.5 to 10mcg supplement daily. Children aged one to four should have a 10mcg supplement daily all year round. The only exception to this is children on more than 500ml of infant formula a day, as it’s already fortified. Adults and children over five should consider taking 10mcg of vitamin D  in autumn and winter. Those who are at risk of low levels should take a supplement all year round. Having low levels of vitamin D isn’t the same as being deficient but it does increase your risk of deficiency.

How do we get it naturally?

Vitamin D is dubbed the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because we make most of it through the action of the sun’s UVB rays on our skin. In the UK this is only possible between April and September because the sun isn’t strong enough the rest of the year. Vitamin D is also found in a small range of foods, including oily fish such as salmon and tuna, red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified breakfast cereals and spreads.

Why can’t we get enough naturally?

The guidelines acknowledge that many people do get enough vitamin D from natural sources in spring and summer. Because we’re dependent on our diet alone in autumn and winter, and vitamin D is only present in small quantities in a few foods, many of us aren’t getting enough throughout the year. We also spend more time indoors than previous generations and are rightly more conscious of the risks of skin cancer so we wear sunscreen, which filters out UVB rays.

Who is at risk of having low vitamin D levels?

Anyone who doesn’t expose their skin to the sun much, or who spends a lot of time indoors. People with dark skin also find it harder to make vitamin D, as do elderly people, plus vegetarians and vegans aren’t able to get as much from their diets.

What are the signs you might be low or deficient in vitamin D?

The symptoms can be quite general, but they include aches and pains, feeling tired all the time or feeling generally unwell.

So, should we sunbathe more?

No. It’s not necessary to sunbathe to get enough vitamin D. However, no set time can be given for the right level of sun exposure because the rate at which we make vitamin D varies according to environmental conditions and skin colour.

In 2010, British health organisations issued a joint statement on how to balance the risks and benefits of sun exposure. It advised going outside for a few minutes around the middle of the day without sunscreen but being careful not to burn. For advice on safe sun exposure for your skin type, check out Cancer Research UK’s Am I at risk of sunburn? guide.

Learn more about the latest NHS advice. Always consult your GP with any health concerns.

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