The importance of Vitamin D this autumn: are you getting enough?

A fried egg make to look like yellow sunshine behind a white cloud

It’s known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because vitamin D is primarily produced on the skin in sunlight. As it’s no secret that we’re coming to the end of summer, it’s more important than ever that we get plenty of vitamin D. It’s essential for healthy bones and teeth, supports the immune system and is also important in regulating our mood.

So how can we chase the sunshine this autumn? Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her ideas on getting enough vitamin D through the coming months.

SMALLER--4 Suzie Blog pic

THE FACTS

The most active form of vitamin D (vitamin D3) is made on the skin in the presence of sunshine. What actually happens is that when ultra violet rays reach the skin, a form of vitamin D is converted into the active form known as cholecalciferol. This is then transported to the liver and kidneys which produce an even more potent form.

This is great if there’s sufficient sunshine! However, it’s a well-established fact that there’s widespread deficiency of vitamin D within populations living in the Northern Hemisphere (for example, the UK), as we get little sunlight during the autumn and winter months. The body can store vitamin D in the liver, but it’s often insufficient to last through the winter months, and that’s assuming there’s was enough to be stored in the first place.

Woman lunging on a beach with the outline of her bones shown as if x-rayed to represent strong bones

Vitamin D is available in a few animal-based foods as D3 but in plant foods the form Vitamin D2 is harder for the body to convert into the active form. However, it’s still a very viable nutrient, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

THE BENEFITS

Vitamin D is super-powerful and has far-reaching health benefits. What we know for certain though is that vitamin D is needed for healthy bones and teeth. This is mainly because it’s essential to metabolise the minerals calcium and phosphorus. It also plays a key role in keeping the immune system on track and is thought to help ease low mood. More research is emerging all the time on this topic.

THE FOODS

Vitamin D is found in a number of foods and even though it still has to be converted to its most active form, food sources make a valuable contribution to levels needed by the body. Salmon, for example, is one of the best sources of vitamin D3. However, wild salmon contains more than farmed salmon mainly because of the food the fish have consumed. Other oily fish such as mackerel and sardines are great (tinned sardines are particularly good if you eat the small bones), plus tuna, egg yolks, oysters and shrimp.

A range of foods containing vitamin D

However, if you’re vegetarian, the only plant source of vitamin D is mushrooms. They work just like humans in that they produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Other than that, there are a range of fortified foods to choose from such as cow’s milk, soya milk, orange juice (not all brands will be fortified, so check the label), and some cereals which will also contain vitamin D.

THE SUPPLEMENTS

Public Health England issued advice a couple of years ago that everyone should take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D during the winter months, such was the widespread problem of deficiency. However, this should very much be considered a minimum level as the body generally needs much more. Supplements contain either vitamin D3 or vitamin D2 and they will both help prevent deficiency symptoms, which can include muscle and joint aches and pains, depression, poor immunity and more falls in the elderly.

 

The best advice is to start taking a supplement now but also try to eat more foods or fortified foods containing vitamin D.

So whilst the summer has almost finished for another year, top up those Vitamin D levels through diet and supplementation to make sure you are getting enough of this essential vitamin.

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The amazing benefits of Vitamin C

Many mammals produce their own vitamin C, but humans lost that ability many years ago, through lacking a specific enzyme within the body. Fortunately, as always, nature has come to the rescue since vitamin C is readily available in many foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. However, it’s quickly lost during food preparation, cooking and storage which is why it needs to be eaten very regularly.

Clinical Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer tells us everything we need to know about Vitamin C.

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WHAT IS IT?

Vitamin C is probably one of the most well-known vitamins. Whilst James Lind recognised during the 1700’s that lemons and limes could prevent the deficiency disease of scurvy, no-one realised it was actually down to a lack of vitamin C. It was first discovered by a Hungarian Biochemist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi in 1928 and further work was then carried out to fully understand its chemical structure and its wonderful health benefits to the body.

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is water-soluble. This means it is not stored in the body, unlike vitamins A, D, E and K, and so needs to be consumed every day. Researchers and experts may differ in their views of how much vitamin C we need to consume daily, but one thing’s for sure: it plays an essential role in our daily nutrition.

WHAT DOES IT DO?

One of the most important functions of Vitamin C is the formation and maintenance of collagen which is essential for growth, skin health and repair of bones, tendons and cartilage. This is the reason why vitamin C is often known as the ‘beauty vitamin’ and why it’s found in skin preparations. Eating sufficient vitamin C will certainly help keep the skin looking young.

Additionally, vitamin C is our primary water-soluble key antioxidant and our first line of antioxidant protection. It works alongside vitamin E, our key fat-soluble vitamin, and the two complement each other at cellular level.

Vitamin C also plays a critical role in immune function by enhancing white blood cell production and providing antiviral properties.

WHERE IS IT FOUND?

Vitamin C is rich in most fruits and vegetables. However, it’s especially high in kiwi, papaya, citrus fruits, strawberries and sweet peppers. In fact, the easiest way to ensure you’re getting plenty into your diet is by looking at the colour on your plate. Have you eaten a fruit and vegetable rainbow?

It is quite difficult to eat all the colours of the rainbow in one meal but it’s certainly possible over the course of a day. Fruits and vegetables with their rich and vibrant colours are packed with vitamin C, as well as other antioxidants and beneficial nutrients, so include as many as you can every day.

HOW TO EAT MORE

Whilst vitamin C is lost during cooking, it does leech into the water if you’re boiling or steaming. So using the ‘vegetable water’ to make a sauce or gravy, or refrigerate it to use in a juice or smoothie at a later date. Alternatively, eating fruits and vegetables raw is a great way of retaining all their wonderful nutrient content.

An easy way to boost your vitamin C intake during the day is to snack on fruits and vegetables; for example, eat crudités with hummus or blueberries as a morning snack or try a few slices of apple before bedtime (which can also help with sleep). Take a leaf out of the Mediterranean diet: they may not eat lots of vegetables at meal times, but they eat them at other times of the day or often as a starter to a meal.

It’s good to get into the habit of having vegetables with every meal, whatever you’re eating. For example, you may have prepared a delicious chilli con carne with rice, but what’s wrong with having a side of broccoli with it?

NEED TO KNOW

Around 70-90% of vitamin C is absorbed fairly rapidly and excreted through the urine after about 30 minutes. For this reason, the body can’t absorb large amounts of vitamin C in one dosage, when taken in supplement form, hence the often-heard advice to take it in divided dosages throughout the day.

It’s also worth remembering that freshly sliced cucumbers, if left standing, lose around 45% of their vitamin C content within the first three hours. So, with all fruits and vegetables, prepare, chop and eat as quickly as possible!

So with a little thought and planning, it’s not difficult to eat good levels of vitamin C every day and you’ll quickly notice the benefits to your health.

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The top three vitamins to future-proof your health

We all know we need to eat healthily and lead an active life to give us the best chance of staying well into old age.  Obviously, we don’t have a looking glass to see what’s going on inside our body but for starters why not prioritise those vitamins that could really help support your health as the years go by?

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, shares her top three vitamins for future-proofing your health.

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VITAMIN C

A popular remedy for the common cold, and possibly the most well-known of all the vitamins, the health benefits of Vitamin C are far-reaching.  Vitamin C was first discovered many years ago by sailors in the British Navy trying to stave off the deficiency disease of scurvy by eating citrus fruits. In fact, it’s the very reason us Brits are often nicknamed ‘limeys’ because of the high vitamin C content in limes that were consumed.

Since then, it’s been found that vitamin C is used by the body in many different ways. Its primary function is in the manufacture of collagen, the main protein in the body.  Vitamin C is needed to join together the amino acid proline to form a stable collagen structure. As collagen is so important for holding our body together, vitamin C is actually crucial for healthy skin. Therefore, whilst your body might be quietly ageing, outwardly you’ll be looking younger!  Most importantly, you’ll be taking very good care of the inner structure of your body, which of course you can’t see.

Whilst vitamin C is readily found in many fruits and vegetables, it’s quickly used up by the body, so you need to be eating these foods every day.  Think peppers, guavas, kale, broccoli, strawberries, oranges and lemons, mangoes and asparagus. With such an amazing variety to choose from you’ll never be short of ways to increase your vitamin C intake.

VITAMIN D

Affectionately known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because it’s made on the skin in the presence of sunlight, vitamin D is a key player in your healthy future.

The main role of vitamin D is to stimulate the absorption of calcium – our main bone and teeth-building mineral.  Although it’s fat-soluble, not much is stored in the body, hence, during the winter months in the UK, around 40% of the population are deficient.

As with many nutrients, deficiency symptoms can often be unspecific and not noticed until there is potentially something more serious afoot.  This is certainly true when it comes to our bones; peak bone density is reached at around 25 to 30 years of age, therefore it’s key to ensure the body has the right nutrients in early years to build strong bones for the future.

New benefits of vitamin D are being discovered all the time.  Optimal vitamin D levels in the body are also associated with better mood throughout life.  A recent large study[1] showed that increased levels of vitamin D may help prevent depression in later life – yet another good reason to take a supplement through the winter months when sunlight is scarce.

VITAMIN E

As part of normal daily life, the body is under constant attack from free radicals; pollution, poor diet, smoking, excessive sunlight and stress can all take their toll.  Whilst the body does have internal mechanisms for coping with free radicals in the form of antioxidant enzyme systems, it is difficult to know when the body is being overwhelmed.  Thankfully nature has provided us with a wealth of antioxidant nutrients, in particular, vitamin E.

Vitamin E is actually the collective name for a group of biologically active compounds which help prevent any damage caused by free radicals. It would seem that many of our serious degenerative diseases are associated with free radical damage, so whilst we might not know whether the body is coping, it’s certainly worth future-proofing with this vitamin.

Vitamin E also future proofs us in other ways; it helps improve fertility in both men and women.  The best food sources of vitamin E are polyunsaturated oils, seeds, nuts, whole grains, avocados, berries and green leafy vegetables.

As with anything, prevention is better than cure, so it’s certainly worth backing these three vitamins for the best chance of a healthier life, well into old age.

[1] De Oliveira et al.  Asscociations between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in later life: Evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA).  J Gerontol A Biol Med Sci 2017 June 22

 

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Talking rhubarb: everything you need to know

Whilst there may be some confusion around whether rhubarb is a fruit or a vegetable, there’s certainly no doubt about its nutritional benefits.

Clinical Nutritionist, Suzie Sawyer, takes a closer look at rhubarb and why it’s worth including in your diet.

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RHUBARB IN THE RAW

Rhubarb is very widely grown around the world and has quite a long season but right now it’s at its best.  To set the record straight, rhubarb is actually a vegetable!  It has been widely grown in the UK for around 400 years and tends to be sweeter if grown in greenhouses.  The redder the stalks the sweeter the taste! Rhubarb can be a little ‘tart’ hence the reason it’s often cooked with other sweeter fruits.

Its ‘real’ name is Rheum which is the ancient name for the River Volga in Russia. The Chinese first discovered rhubarb thousands of years ago but it wasn’t until the 17th century that it was used in the UK as a food.

Whilst there are many benefits to including rhubarb in your diet, it is important to note that only the stalks and flowers can be eaten; the leaves are actually poisonous.  Another hot tip is that rhubarb is best not cooked in an aluminium saucepan as the metal can be absorbed into the food.  Other than that, it has many merits!

NUTRITIONAL PROFILE

One of rhubarb’s nutritional highlights is that it’s very high in vitamin K which is one of our key bone-building vitamins.  Vitamin K is important in the normal bone re-modelling process that is constantly happening within the body. As part of their normal functioning, bone cells are constantly destroyed and re-built and vitamin K is key in this process.

As with most fruits and vegetables, rhubarb contains good levels of vitamin C. Vitamin C is great for boosting the immune system and is one of our hardest working vitamins, helping to keep the body fit and well.

Rhubarb is also a high antioxidant food, right up there with some of the berry fruits.  Foods high in antioxidants help stave off free radicals which are responsible for the ageing process and some of our more common degenerative diseases.  Therefore, including more antioxidant foods in the diet is always going to be beneficial. Research has also been carried out using extracts of rhubarb to see how it can potentially help protect against Alzheimer’s[1].  Studies of this nature are limited but it just shows the potential power of food!

When the wonders of rhubarb were first discovered a few thousand years ago, medical herbalists used it in tincture form to help ease digestive upsets.  Rhubarb is naturally high in fibre so will certainly keep the bowels in smooth working order if nothing else!

In Chinese medicine, rhubarb is believed to help inflammation and reduce infection.  Its anti-inflammatory effects seem to help the mucous membranes.  Therefore, if you’re suffering from the dreaded hay fever right now, then eating some stewed rhubarb regularly might just help.

RHUBARB RECIPES

The most important point to remember when using rhubarb in recipes is that the redder the edible stalks, the more likely they’ll be sweeter in taste.

Rhubarb is naturally quite sour so, but for obvious reasons, adding too much sugar is best avoided. However, rhubarb works really well with strawberries, which of course are readily available right now.  Try stewing some rhubarb with a little maple syrup and then cool. Add some walnuts and mixed seeds and you’ve got yourself a wonderful breakfast topping for your porridge or cereal.

One of the most traditional ways to use rhubarb is in a crumble – a lovely indulgent pudding for special occasions.  Rhubarb works really well on its own or with oranges or apples.

You could even try rhubarb in a smoothie. Why not simmer some rhubarb with a little honey the night before.  Then whisk up the next morning with some other berries of your choice, together with some granola for a really filling and tasty start to your day!

So whilst rhubarb might not always have been the first choice in your shopping trolley, it certainly offers some wonderful nutritional benefits and tasty treats. Enjoy!

[1] Misiti F et al, Protective effect of rhubarb derivatives on amyloid beta (1-42) peptide-induced apoptosis in IMR-32 cells: a case of nutrigenomic.  Brain Res Bull 2006 Dec 11; 71(1-3): 29-36. Epub 2006 Aug 7

 

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