Vitamin D is essential to help us maintain healthy bones, teeth and muscles. Believe it or not vitamin D mostly comes from the sunshine, not food, hence why vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine vitamin.” Our skin is where we make this vitamin so skin exposure to sunlight is important. Vitamin D deficiency is very common, especially during the winter months however there are increasing numbers of people who don’t get enough vitamin throughout the year.
A deficiency is very serious as they can lead to deformities such as rickets in children whereas bone pain and tenderness can occur in adults, a condition called osteomalacia.
Vitamin D has only been throughly researched into bone health. Current research suggests a lack of vitamin D can also affect cardiovascular health, gut health, reproduction, risk of neurological diseases and mental health. Further research is required however to determine whether it is vitamin D that directly causes these health problems.
It is possible to obtain some vitamin D from foods. Found sources rich in vitamin D are oily fish (such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout), cod liver oil and fortified foods (foods with added vitamin D such as spreads, some cereals, yogurts and infant milk). Offal, egg yolks and milk also contain vitamin D however these are in small amounts.
The most efficient way of getting enough vitamin D is to get enough sunlight exposure. In the UK, the sun’s ultraviolet light isn’t strong enough to make vitamin D during winter. Most of the population are able to achieve the recommended value of 10 micrograms (10mcg) per day during late March to September just through sunlight exposure on our hands, face, legs and arms. Prolonged exposure can increase our chance of skin cancer, so taking care not to burn and the use of sunscreen is high recommended.
Those with darker skin such as African, African-Caribbean and South Asian ethnicities may require longer exposure time to sunlight. The NHS recommends these groups to take a 10mcg vitamin D supplement throughout the year. Supplements are also recommended to those who spend a lot of time indoors (such as night shift workers, the housebound, office workers), if we cover most of our skin when we’re outdoors, the further north you live, over 65’s as their skin isn’t as effective at making vitamin D and if we are in polluted air.
Our bodies are able to use our vitamin D reserves and from food sources during autumn and winter, however we need to replenish these to keep a good level of vitamin D.
Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can include fatigue, poor concentration, issues with bowel movement, raised blood pressure, muscle cramps, joint pain or weakness and weight gain. This is not an exhaustive list and the symptoms don’t follow a clear pattern.
See a GP if you think you have any symptoms of vitamin D deficiency to get a blood test. Sometimes symptoms can overlap with another medical condition. Also see a GP if you’re taking any medication as this can interfere with supplements.