Vitamin D, an essential friend of healthy bones, may, in fact, be helpful for a host of ailments – and you’re probably not getting enough of it.
In an era of superfoods, next big things and cure-all magic supplements that may or
may not deliver, it’s refreshing to see a familiar name come to the fore. Good old
vitamin D has been revealing itself to have serious benefits, more than first thought,
and if you live in Ireland there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough of it.
It has long been known that vitamin D plays an important role in bone health,
specifically the absorption of calcium and phosphorus. As a result, it’s essential for
the formation and health of bones, teeth and cartilage and without sufficient
amounts bones can become thin and brittle.
The fat-soluble vitamin is naturally present in some foods (such as oily fish) but we mostly get it from sun exposure, hence it’s ‘sunshine vitamin’ nickname. When the sun’s ultraviolet rays hit the skin, cholecalciferol is produced under the skin and then undergoes a number of changes to produce the active form of vitamin D in the body.
“Vitamin D is critically important for the maintenance of bone health throughout
life,” explains endocrinologist Professor Michael F. Holick, author of The Vitamin D
Solution. “Bones are living tissues in your body, which means they are constantly renewing themselves. Vitamin D is essential as it helps our bodies absorb more calcium from the food and drink we consume to help develop strong teeth and bones.”
Vitamin D Defiency
According to Dr Holick, women who are vitamin D deficient can lose as much as 3 to
4 per cent of their skeletal mass per year and often aches and pains in bones and
muscles can be misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia (a chronic condition resulting in
widespread musculoskeletal pain) or chronic fatigue syndrome when in fact they
might be down to osteomalacia (softening of the bones) caused by vitamin D
Alongside vitamin D’s crucial role in bone health, there is increasing evidence to
suggest a possible link between a deficiency in the vitamin and autoimmune
diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.
“Vitamin D deficiency has also been associated with increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections in children and adults as well as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and Alzheimer's disease,” says Dr Holick. “It is also recognised that women who had the highest intake of vitamin D reduced their risk of developing multiple sclerosis by 41 per cent and rheumatoid arthritis by 44 per cent and the Nurses’ Health Study at Harvard University revealed that women who had the highest intake of vitamin D reduce their risk of developing breast cancer by almost 50 per cent.”
Public Health Problem
It is thought that vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common medical conditions
in the world and Dr Holick describes it as a ‘public health problem’ in Ireland.
So why is so prevalent, particularly in Ireland where, according to recent research by University College Cork, one in eight people are vitamin D deficient? The key most likely lies in that sunny nickname. While it’s true that food like oily fish sources, they’re not widely eaten here so the sun is the main potential source of vitamin D.
Modern living sees us leave the house earlier on dark mornings to dodge rush hour, while longer working days often mean we’re heading home after sunset. If you consider that many of us don’t take a lunch hour, to go for a walk or sit outside, it’s quite feasible that days could go by without us seeing a speck of sunlight.
The T&Cs Of Getting Your Vitamin D
Our location on the globe is also a factor. To develop adequate vitamin D the sun needs to be of a certain strength and often sunlight here, especially in winter months, just doesn’t cut it. In short, from October to April it is almost impossible to get adequate vitamin D from sunlight. Dr
Holick suggests using the app dminder.info for guidelines on when and how much vitamin D you can make from sun exposure.
Then, of course, there is the dilemma of protecting skin from UV rays and skin cancer
(a real concern, and the most common form of cancer in Ireland) and allowing UV rays to penetrate skin to produce vitamin D.
The World Health Organisation recommends 5 to 15 minutes of casual sun exposure to hands, face and arms two to three times a week during the summer months, while the Irish Cancer Society also reminds people that they should still practice sun safety. You don’t need to ditch
your SPF, which is important for many reasons - just try to catch a little bit of sunlight every day or two.
Given our climate, and the vampire-like condition of modern living, people generally
have to look elsewhere to boost their vitamin D levels. As well as natural sources,
such as oily fish, cod liver oil or mushrooms that have been exposed to sunlight,
supplements and fortified foodstuffs can help. Dairy is widely consumed in Ireland
and fortified products like Avonmore Super Milk, which contains 5µg of vitamin D
per 250ml glass can help bridge the gap.
There are also lots of vitamin D supplements on the market including most recently The D, a high potency supplement created by Irish nutritionist Ruth Martin-Hetherington which contains
3000IU of vitamin D (missfitskinnytea.ie). With research ongoing into the importance of vitamin D - UCC even has a designated Centre for Vitamin D and Nutrition Research – many more benefits hidden within it may yet come to the fore. Vitamin D might be enjoying its time in the sun for a long time yet.