Over the last couple of years, there’s been an increasing buzz around vitamin D. And for very good reason.
We’ve always known that vitamin D works with calcium to support healthy bones and teeth but we’re only really understanding just how essential it is for the immune system too.
Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares why vitamin D is so important for so many aspects of our health.
What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D is known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because it’s primarily produced on the skin in the presence of sunlight. However, The Department of Health have acknowledged that a massive 40% of the UK population are deficient in vitamin D, which is putting the nation’s health at risk.
Countries located in the Northern Hemisphere who lack sunshine, such as the UK, all have populations that are equally deficient. And, whilst a sunny holiday can certainly boost levels, because the body can store it, high factor sun cream can block its absorption and we simply don’t get enough Vitamin D throughout the year.
What does it do?
Interestingly, vitamin D’s most important function is the metabolism of calcium; both calcium and vitamin D are vital for the health of bones and teeth. Sunlight on the skin activates a pre-cursor to vitamin D and then it’s 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, protecting us against infections such as colds and flu. Not only that, more and more great things are being discovered about vitamin D; it’s also important for muscle strength, mood and healthy blood pressure and new research is being carried out all the time. Indeed, when the COVID virus appeared, there was so much more research on vitamin D and how it protected against poor health outcomes. Doctors are now unequivocal about its importance for the immune system.
Can I find it in food?
The most active form of this vitamin (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, which is very helpful. Plus, both forms of vitamin D are available in supplement form.
Top of the list of foods to eat are oily and bony fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, and pilchards. However, egg yolks and butter also contain vitamin D. Milk contains a little vitamin D but lots of calcium.
There is a small amount of vitamin D in green leafy vegetables, but again, they’re a good source of calcium.
Am I getting enough?
Around 40% of the UK population are thought to be deficient in vitamin D. This can manifest itself in a number of ways; rickets in children is becoming more prevalent, partly because of parents using strong sun cream, which is completely understandable. However, in order to improve levels of vitamin D within the body, just exposing the face for 15 minutes a day during the winter, can help.
Other conditions that are worsened by a lack of vitamin D are 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 a younger age group. Women going through menopause tend to feel achier generally if they haven’t sufficient vitamin D. However, the strength of the sun is still not going to make sufficient vitamin D during the winter, so supplementation is encouraged during October to March as a minimum.
Does it keep you young?
Interestingly, research carried out in 2010 found that vitamin D may hold the key to long-lasting physical function. It would seem that of those studied (around 2,788 people in total) people 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 generally being able to keep physically active. Another great reason to supplement through the winter months.
Vitamin D is certainly one essential nutrient that should be shouted about so do make sure you are getting enough every day.
 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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