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We take a look at some of the health benefits of vitamin D

Vitamin D is well known as the “sunshine vitamin” because it is made by the action of sunlight on the skin. Although we have enjoyed a particularly good summer in the UK this year, between autumn and spring it can be very difficult to get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone. Here we speak to the experts to find out why vitamin D is so beneficial to our health and wellbeing, and find out some tips on diet and supplementation.

The main health benefits

“One of the main benefits of vitamin D is the vital assistance it plays in helping us to absorb calcium, which in turn helps to promote the healthy functioning of bone and muscle growth,” explains Sarah Flower, nutritionist at Power Health (www.powerhealth.co.uk). “Without sufficient vitamin D we are much more prone to bone problems such as joint pains, muscle weakness, bone density and more seriously osteoporosis. Studies suggest that older people who take vitamin D seem to fall less often, probably due to better muscle function.”

“Other benefits of vitamin D include its role in helping prevent upper respiratory tract infections,” says Greg Weatherhead, nutritional expert and NPD manager at BetterYou (betteryou.com). “These include rhinitis, tonsillitis and laryngitis, otherwise known as the common cold. Scientific research has demonstrated how in people with low vitamin D levels (less than 25n ng/ml) risk of infection was reduced by 42 per cent.”

“Most recently vitamin D deficiency has been linked to sleep disorders such as sleep deprivation, poor quality sleep and sleepiness,” says Dr Emma Derbyshire from the Health & Food Supplements Information Service (www.hsis.org). “Vitamin D supplementation has also been found to have potential benefits for pregnant women with gestational diabetes.”

Sarah Flower adds: “There is a huge amount of research and evidence to support the use of vitamin D for a wide range of mental health issues, from mild mood right through to schizophrenia. There is also some interesting research in the prevention of postnatal depression. Vitamin D also helps lower our blood pressure and helps to keep us calm and less anxious. It has even been shown to help the body break down stubborn fat cells.”

Bring me sunshine!

“Our body creates vitamin D when we expose our skin to sunlight (UVB rays),” says Sarah Flower. “We are all worried about sun exposure and our risk of skin cancer, and we have been doing all we can to block UVB and UVA (the rays that play a major part in skin ageing and wrinkling exposure). The consensus guidelines produced by the prominent charities suggest that, although there are many factors involved that need to be taken into account, we need to be exposing one third of our body to the sun, without sunscreen, for just under 15 minutes every day, without, of course, getting burnt. What’s more, to ensure we are getting sufficient UVB rays, we may need to be making use of the midday sun for our daily vitamin D top up, with the highest level of UVB available between 10am and 2pm.”

Diet and supplementation

“Make sure you are eating foods providing vitamin D on a regular basis,” says Dr Emma Derbyshire. “This include the likes of oily fish such as mackerel, trout and salmon, cheese and egg yolks. Opt for foods fortified with vitamin D such as cereals, milk, dairy products and orange juice when you can, but especially if you are vegan. Now that autumn is approaching, look to supplement dietary intakes with 10 micrograms of vitamin D until spring, as advised by Public Health England. Those whose skin has little or no exposure to the sun, such as those in institutions such as care homes, or who always cover their skin when outside, ideally need to take a supplement throughout the year. Ethnic minority groups with dark skin may also not get enough vitamin D from sunlight in the summer and therefore should consider taking a supplement all year round.”

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