Enjoy some sun and boost vitamin D levels

28th Jun 2019
Enjoy some sun and boost vitamin D levels

(Photo: Senior Airman Jensen Stidham/U.S. Air Force CC)

Now that summer is here, although it hasn’t really felt like it recently, it is important that we all start to think of our vitamin D levels.

It can be difficult to get enough vitamin D from food and most of our vitamin D comes from direct sunlight on our skin when we are outdoors. It is estimated that our body can produce around 90% of the vitamin D we need from sunlight.

However, in places like the UK, we have long winters when the sun is not strong enough to produce vitamin D in the skin and so over the winter months many people will become deficient. So, it is important to get into the sun from late April onwards to start boosting our levels again. It doesn’t have to be a hot sunny day – you just need direct sunlight.

The UVB light converts a chemical compound that is naturally found in the skin into a precursor of vitamin D, which is then metabolised to vitamin D in the body. However, modern lifestyles often mean we are spending less time outside than previous generations.

It is estimated that children spend less time outside now than they did even just a decade ago. This change in lifestyle is having health consequences – we need to get outdoors. Not only do we need to get vitamin D but there is growing evidence that being outdoors can boost our mood and improve mental health.

So why do we need vitamin D? Vitamin D is important in regulating the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, which are needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency typically include aching bones and joints, fatigue and muscle weakness. In children lack of vitamin D can have serious consequences with impaired bone development leading to soft, weak bones and bone deformities known as rickets.

Rickets was a disease that was associated with the Victorian era and social deprivation, cases of rickets fell dramatically last century and was thought to be eliminated from Britain in the 1950s, but many doctors are reporting cases of rickets again and the numbers are rising. Children are spending too much time indoors is mostly to blame. Similarly, in adults lack of vitamin D can lead to weakened and painful bones.

The effects of vitamin D are not limited to our bones, over the past few decades research is uncovering the wider-reaching effect of this vitamin. Scientists now believe vitamin D is important for the immune system and deficiency has been linked to breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, depression, weight gain, multiple sclerosis and may be related to the rise in allergies.

Some vitamin D can be obtained from the diet. It is a fat-soluble vitamin so is typically found in foods containing fats; egg yolks, oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) and red meat. But enough vitamin D is not easily obtained from our diets, so sunlight and supplements are the main options to address deficiencies.

Vitamin D supplements can also be important during the winter months especially in people who do not get enough sunlight e.g., women who cover for religious reasons and the elderly. Some women may be recommended to take supplements during pregnancy if their levels are low.

We know that direct sunlight on the skin is important for vitamin D but we are also told to use sun creams to protect our skin from the harmful rays of the sun which can cause skin cancer. This conflicting advice can mean that some people use high SPF factor sun creams and therefore reduce the sun’s ability to make vitamin D.

It is obvious our bodies need some sunlight and also important we protect against overexposure to the sun and getting sunburn which can increase our risk of skin cancer. However, research has shown that daily sunlight exposure for around 10-15 minutes in the middle part of the day (25 minutes for people with darker skin) during the spring and summer months should provide us with enough vitamin D to avoid deficiency for most of the year. Simply rolling up your sleeves and exposing your forearms, hands and face should provide enough vitamin D. If not daily then aim for sun exposure at least 3 times a week to help boost vitamin D levels.

Levels of vitamin D deficiency in the UK are high. Our modern lifestyles often mean we spend more time indoors and do not get the sun exposure we need. In winter months it can be difficult to maintain vitamin D levels due to the lack of sun and supplements may be needed for some people. But once the sun is back, we should all be mindful of how our bodies are designed to be outdoors and require a regular dose of sunlight on our skin.

So, get out there and go for a walk, get the kids out to play or just sit in the sun, relax and have a cup of tea for 15 minutes. If it’s a hot day and you will be out for a while let your body get 15 minutes of sunlight before you put on sun cream. Being mindful that your body needs sunlight and taking measures to get outside can have far-reaching effects on your health.

Rachel Kayani

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