Decades ago, rickets, a deficiency of vitamin D was a concern in the UK, and it had since been virtually eradicated. However, in recent years vitamin D deficiency, even rickets, is making a comeback. It’s estimated that up to a billion people worldwide have low levels of vitamin D.
You need vitamin D to help you absorb calcium from food, and therefore it is essential for the development of healthy bones. Emerging research suggests that vitamin D could also be protective against a multitude of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you only need to build strong bones during childhood or when you’re older. Your bones are constantly being broken down and built up again – this happens at a faster rate in young age but it still occurs, whatever your age. You’re not sitting on the same bones you were 5-10 years ago, so you need to ensure your calcium and vitamin D stores are adequate to prevent your bones from becoming weak.
After the menopause, women lose calcium in the urine and are more prone to osteoporosis – the loss of minerals that causes thinning and weakening of the bones. So ensuring you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D is particularly important at this stage of life.
As older adults may be housebound or living in care homes they are at a greater risk of deficiency. The UK National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends vitamin D supplements for the following groups:
• All children from 6 months to three years (7.5 micrograms per day);
• Pregnant and breastfeeding women (10 micrograms per day);
• Housebound and the elderly over 65 years (10 micrograms per day);
The Food Standards Agency recommends that if you believe you may have low levels of vitamin D, you should take a supplement of 25 micrograms (0.025 mg) or less a day.
Why are we becoming “D-ficient”?
It’s a lot to do with where we live – have you seen the sun lately? Our bodies manufacture vitamin D when the rays of the sun hit our skin. But in northern latitudes, we don’t get much sunshine so that limits the amount we can make. And the government advice over recent years to cover up with sunblock has meant that we are compromising the little chance we have to produce enough vitamin D.
You do get some vitamin D from food, but not enough for your needs. A study published in the Annals of Clinical Biochemistry in Birmingham suggested that South Asians and African Caribbean women were particularly lacking in vitamin D – the dark skin creates a barrier from the sun.
And a 2006 study from the Mayo Clinic estimated that about one in three adults in the United States have inadequate levels of vitamin D.
What can you do?
1. Ask your GP for a blood test to assess your vitamin D levels. If you are low, they may prescribe a supplement. If you are severely deficient, you could need high dose injections.
2. Get outdoors as soon as you see the sun! The best times for vitamin D manufacture are estimated to be between around 10am and 3pm during the months of March to September. Make sure you expose some of your skin – your arms, face, and legs – to the sun for 15 minutes or so. Don’t overdo it; after 15-30 minutes, it’s best to cover up with a sun protection cream or spray. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin so it is stored in your liver, so the more you make in the summer the more you’ll have to play with in the winter!
3. Eat foods rich in vitamin D.
Food Sources of Vitamin D
Butter, fortified margarines and low fat spreads
Oily Fish such as herrings, mackerel, sardines, tuna and pilchards
Red meat, liver, eggs
Full fat dairy produce such as cheese and full cream milk
Fortified products e.g. certain brands of yogurt, breakfast cereals and probiotics
By Azmina Govindji RD MBDA, Consultant Nutritionist & Registered Dietitian