The essential Vitamin D – why is it so important?

Vitamin D and a sunshine symbol written in the sand

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. 

CLose up of two hands making a heart shape with the sun in the backgroundCountries 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. 

shutterstock_69606442-woman-with-cold-immunity-sept16

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. 

A range of foods containing vitamin D

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. 

Close up of a woman by the ocean

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[1] 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. 

Group of retired women in their 60's walking on a beach

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.

 

[1] 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).

FOR MORE GREAT NUTRITION AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

Sign up to receive our blog and get a weekly dose of the latest nutrition, health and wellness advice direct to your inbox.

Follow us on Instagram @feelaliveuk or on Twitter @feelaliveuk for nutrition, lifestyle and well-being tips.

Visit us at www.feelaliveuk.com for the latest offers and exclusive Alive! content.

Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

For everything you need to know about vitamins, minerals and herbs visit our sister site Herbfacts

All images: Shutterstock

Women’s health: nutrition at every life stage

group of women of varying ages in a yoga class

Women’s health needs vary throughout their lives.  There are many years spent balancing hormones and this can have other knock-on health implications.

Thankfully there are some vitamins and minerals which can specifically offer solutions to women at every life stage.

Clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer looks at which are the top nutrients women should be focusing on during their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

The fertility years – 30’s

A group of women in their 30's

More women are now having babies in their 30’s than in their 20’s in the UK. And there are certain nutrients that can help support fertility.

It’s important to ensure the body is being fed specific nutrients such as the mineral zinc, needed for fertility as well as immune health.  Oysters (also aphrodisiacs), whole grains, seafood, beef, beans and mushrooms are all good sources so make sure they feature in your daily diet.  Zinc also helps with hormone balance which will help manage fluctuations better.

A range of foods containing the mineral Zinc

In terms of looking after your hair, skin and nails, then the beauty vitamin is biotin.  It’s found in organ meats, soya products, oats and dairy.  Also make sure you are eating a varied, colourful diet, with plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables to keep you looking your best from the inside out.

The Peri-menopause years – 40’s

Group of women in their 40's

However, much we try to avoid saying the ‘M’ word, unfortunately menopause can start to become noticeable during our 40’s.  The average age for menopause is 51, however, during the 5-10 years leading up to it we may start to notice various symptoms. It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate what’s down to peri-menopause symptoms and what’s caused by stress.  Anxiety, low mood, unwanted weight gain, poor sleep and heavy periods can all be problematic.

A range of foods containing Vitamin B6

Thankfully there is some nutritional help at hand. Top of the list for supporting both stress and peri-menopause symptoms is vitamin B6. It’s needed to produce brain neurotransmitters, helps with the stress response and keeps female hormones in good balance.  Cereals, beans, poultry, fish and dark leafy greens are your hormone-friendly foods.

The Menopause years – 50’s

A group of women in their 50's looking at a photo on the screen of a camera

Around 80% of women suffer from menopause symptoms in varying degrees.  Some are so debilitating that women have to stop working, have relationship issues or just feel total despair.  The good news is that there’s much that can be done to alleviate symptoms.  Top of the list are phytoestrogen foods which help to balance falling levels of oestrogen naturally.

A range of phytoestrogen foods

Soya products such as soya milk and tofu, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, beans (especially edamame beans) and chickpeas are all great sources of phytoestrogens so try to have some at every mealtime.

Disturbed sleep can also be a problem during these years; if you’re struggling, the herb valerian, taken about an hour before bedtime is very effective and it won’t make you feel drowsy in the morning.

And if you’re looking for natural support for the symptoms of the menopause you could try Black Cohosh – a traditional herbal remedy used to help hot flushes, night sweats, disturbed sleep and mood swings.

The Freedom years – 60’s

Group of retired women in their 60's walking on a beach

Hormonal fluctuations are diminishing, family life and work pressures should be lessened and hopefully there’s finally a lot more time on your hands!  However, it’s also time when you need to be taking really good care of your bones.

Peak bone density is reached during your 30’s (or earlier) so bone strength can decline thereafter, and this can really accelerate after the menopause due to lack of oestrogen.  Make sure you’re eating plenty of bone-loving calcium-rich foods.  It’s not all about dairy. Soya products, green leafy vegetables, oily fish including bones (such as tinned fish) and nuts and seeds are all great sources.

A range of foods containing calcium

Additionally, calcium can’t do it’s work within bone structure without the ‘sunshine’ vitamin D.  During winter months, it’s impossible to get enough from the sun itself, so do make sure you’re taking a daily vitamin D supplement.

Exercise is also essential for bone health and mental wellbeing so make sure you’re doing some every day. It’s not about going to the gym if that’s not your bag, but simply about being as active as possible and enjoying what you’re doing.

So, with a little careful planning, us women can help meet our health needs with specific nutrition throughout all our life stages. 

FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

Sign up to receive our blog and get a weekly dose of the latest nutrition, health and wellness advice direct to your inbox.

Follow us on Twitter @feelaliveuk for nutrition, lifestyle and well-being tips.

Visit us at www.feelaliveuk.com for the latest offers and exclusive Alive! content.

Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie

For everything you need to know about vitamins, minerals and herbs visit our sister site Herbfacts

All images: Shutterstock

 

Vitamin K: everything you need to know!

There are a wealth of nutrients which are essential for health, one of them being vitamin K. However, vitamin K sometimes gets forgotten about, since deficiency is quite rare. But this does not diminish its importance for overall good health.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, provides the low down on what vitamin K is needed for in the body, and how it works alongside other vitamins and minerals.

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

DID YOU KNOW?

Did you know that vitamin K is actually a group of three related fat-soluble vitamins? Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone), vitamin K2 (menaquinone) and vitamin K3 (menadione). This is important to understand because they are sourced differently and hence their roles and therapeutic uses are varied. For example, K1 is food-sourced, K2 is mainly produced by our intestinal bacteria and K3 is a synthetic compound used therapeutically.

WHAT DOES IT DO?

Vitamin K is a fat soluble vitamin which means that it needs to be absorbed by other fats naturally in the body or through the diet. Its main claim to fame is for effective blood clotting; it’s needed for the formation of several proteins called clotting factors. New born babies are often given vitamin K injections to prevent any haemorrhage in early life.

More recently, vitamin K has been found to be important in building healthy bones because it helps to convert a key bone protein from its active to its inactive form. It works alongside other key bone-building nutrients, especially vitamin D.

Vitamin K also exerts a really protective effect on the heart; it’s part of a vital function that helps prevent calcium from depositing in the arteries. This can be a risk factor for atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries.

WHAT IS IT USED FOR?

In daily life, vitamin K can be used therapeutically for protecting the heart and helping prevent osteoporosis. For both these conditions, eating a diet containing good amounts of green foods is beneficial for all-round good health. However, if you’re at risk from either of these, either due to family history or a medical condition, then it’s a really good idea to take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement containing vitamin K.

WHERE IS IT FOUND?

Vitamin K1 is predominantly found in plant-based foods; for example dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, spinach and green tea. Soft cheeses and meats from grass-fed animals also provide some K1.

One of the best sources of vitamin K1 is fat-soluble chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that delivers so many wonderful health benefits. Chlorophyll is the part of a plant that absorbs sunlight to make food – remember photosynthesis at school? It’s this effect, and its function as an antioxidant that makes it so valuable to health and in helping to prevent degenerative diseases. Chlorophyll is readily available in health food stores, generally in its water soluble form.

Vitamin K2 is naturally produced by the beneficial bacteria we all have residing in our digestive tracts. It’s for this reason that vitamin K is rarely deficient in the body. However, it can also be produced by fermented foods, more widely eaten in Eastern cultures, such as natto; natto is a form of fermented soya beans, very popular in Asia. K2 is more pro-active in the body in preserving and improving bone density.

Vitamin K3 is the synthetic form used medicinally, often for babies and in some multivitamins.

So, as with all vitamins and minerals, Vitamin K plays a key role in daily health.

FOR MORE GREAT DIET AND LIFESTYLE ADVICE:

Sign up to receive our blog and get a weekly dose of the latest nutrition and health advice direct to your inbox.

Follow us on Twitter @feelaliveuk for nutrition, lifestyle and well-being tips.

Visit us at www.feelaliveuk.com for the latest offers and exclusive Alive! content.

Follow and Chat with Suzie on Twitter @nutritionsuzie