Many people know that vitamin D is also called ‘the sunshine vitamin’ because it’s primarily made on the skin in the presence of sunshine. However many people are unaware of why vitamin D is so important to our overall health and also why it’s linked to calcium absorption.
Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, tells us what we need to know about vitamin D, how it works with calcium, and the all-important ‘low-down’ on why together they’re so crucial to our health.
VITAMIN D – THE FACTS
Vitamin D is known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because it’s primarily produced on the skin in the sun. The Department of Health have acknowledged that a massive 60% of the UK population are deficient in vitamin D, which is putting the nation’s health at risk. Countries located in the Northern Hemisphere which lack sunshine all have populations that are equally deficient. And whilst a sunshine holiday can certainly boost our vitamin D levels, using high factor sun cream can block its absorption plus because the body can’t store it, and we simply don’t get enough throughout the year.
Vitamin D’s most important function is the metabolism of calcium. This means that both nutrients are vital for the health of bones and teeth. Sunlight on the skin activates a pre-cursor to vitamin D and it is then converted to the most active form of the vitamin – D3.
However, it’s not just the bones and teeth that need vitamin D – it also helps to regulate the body’s immune responses, helping protect us against infections such as colds and flu.
More and more functions of Vitamin D are being discovered; it’s also important for muscle strength, good mood and healthy blood pressure – new research is being carried out all the time. It is so important that the Department of Health recommends that all pregnant and breastfeeding women, babies and young children aged six months to five years and those over 65 years should take a daily vitamin D supplement or a multi-vitamin containing at least 10 µg (micrograms). This also applies to anyone who isn’t exposed to much sunlight.
The most active form of vitamin D (D3) is the one produced by the sunlight on the skin. However, there are some food sources of vitamin D (D2) which, interestingly, are also foods high in calcium so it’s a double whammy! Plus, both forms of vitamin D are available as a supplement or as part of a multi-vitamin.
Top of the list of foods to eat are oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and pilchards. Egg yolks and butter also contain vitamin D, and milk and cheese contain lots of calcium and a little vitamin D. There is a small amount of vitamin D in green leafy vegetables, and again, they’re a good source of calcium, and mushrooms are also a good vegetarian source of vitamin D.
So, why not try making savoury pancakes with eggs, butter, milk, cheese and mushrooms. Your children will love them (hopefully all the family will as well) and you’ll be getting both vitamin D and calcium to boot!
Vitamin D deficiency can manifest itself in a number of ways. With 60% of the population reportedly not getting enough Vitamin D, rickets in children is becoming more prevalent, partly because of the use of sun creams with high SPF, which is completely understandable.
However, in order to improve levels of vitamin D within the body, just exposing the body to the sun for 15 minutes a day is sufficient and, generally, would not be long enough to cause any skin damage or burning.
A lack of vitamin D can also result in a loss of bone mineral content, making fractures more likely and also an increase in bone pain and muscle weakness. Osteomalacia or ‘soft bones’ is another condition on the increase in the younger age groups.
Research carried out in 2010 found that vitamin D may hold the key to long-lasting physical function. Of the 2,788 people studied, those with higher levels of vitamin D had much better physical function as they aged, than those with lower levels.
Those with the highest levels of vitamin D were able to lead more active lives, demonstrating that it’s not just the bones that need vitamin D, but it’s needed for muscle strength and the ability to keep physically active. Yet another great reason to start supplementing right now.
So, it’s never too early (or too late) to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D and calcium, and taking adequate steps now can really help to support a healthier and stronger you in the future.
 Houston D et al, Better vitamin D status could mean better quality of life for seniors. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology 2010 (April 26).
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