Short Of Vitamin D?

I recently received an email from a friend living in deepest southernist France telling me that a blood test had revealed that she was deficient in levels of Vitamin D. Which made me wonder, if she was at risk of Vitamin D deficiency near Toulouse which averages 2047 hours of sunshine annually then what must our UK levels of Vitamin D be like where we average just 1493 hours?

There are people who are already[more] at risk of deficiency:

And now, due to skin cancer concerns mothers routinely[more] cover their children in factor 50 at the first breaking ray of sunshine. During the last half-term, in the park, I watched a mother slather her child in suncream, whilst the mid-day temperature was just around 19-20C. I would have dearly loved to ask her to hold off, just for another 20 minutes but of course didn’t dare. If there is one thing that can be taken as read it’s that, as a breed, we mothers tend not to take unsolicited advice well…!

Taken together though these factors add up to an increasing number of people that are at risk of deficiency. Government statistics suggest that 50% of the adult population have insufficient levels and during winter an additional 16% will have a severe deficiency.

We need vitamin D for bone creation and maintenance so symptoms of deficiency are generally bone related. Children can develop rickets alongside bone pain or muscle weakness. Tooth eruption may also be delayed, anaemia may be present and they may be prone to respiratory infections. Adults may get muscle weakness, weakness in dental enamel, bone tenderness or pain in the spine, shoulder ribs or pelvis.

It also has preventative links to a wide range of other illnesses. It is an essential vitamin for brain health and low levels have been associated with depression, autism and psychosis. It may also stimulate the immune system to rid the brain of beta amyloid, an abnormal protein believed to be a major cause of Alzheimers. Optimum levels are linked to a reduced risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), heart disease, several forms of cancer, bone disease and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition it may also lower blood pressure and, as cholesterol is a building block of vitamin D, increasing exposure to sunlight can speed cholesterol’s transformation and lower serum levels. It also has anti-inflammatory benefits important in atherosclerosis.

Unfortunately Vitamin D is naturally found in only a few foods and, unless we’re eating infeasible amounts of these (fatty fish, liver, eggs, fortified cereals or diary products), diet alone will not provide sufficient levels.

Consequently we need to ensure we get adequate exposure to the right form of sunlight, at the right time and in the right amount. In the UK there are no suitable UV wavelengths from the end of October to the beginning of March, and for the rest of the year 60% of the suitable wavelengths occur between 11:00 and 3:00pm. It is important therefore that we get sufficient exposure during summer to build up resources for winter. Ideally we need 20 minutes outdoors each day in the summer, with limbs uncovered and with a sun cream on of less than SPF8. The darker your skin, the less vitamin D you will be able to make.

Allow children to get 10 minutes of running around first before slathering on sun cream. During the hot sun cover up, but if we’re talking a mild day in May trust your instincts and give the kids a shot at sunshine first.

In lieu of sunshine there are Vitamin D supplements which are sold as D2 and D3 (D3 is more efficiently utilised). The UK government currently recommends supplementation for groups at risk of deficiency such as those listed above. However, as with all things, it is possible to overdo supplementation, there are risks, and contraindications can exist with certain medications, so if considering supplementation check with your GP first.

By Saffron Rogerson

03 July 2013