Are you D-ficient?

Today’s title comes from the talented Sheila Wilson. I couldn’t think of one so asked the facebook community. There were quite a few good ones, but this one definitely stood out! So here it is!

Vitamins, nutrients, supplements – something close to my heart. And with the recent bout of sunshine we had (she says looking out at a grey sky at the moment) I have been wondering if I should be sending the kids out without sun cream to top up their Vitamin D. We’ve all heard (well those of us with children) the health visitor go on about rickets in children, and making sure they get enough vitamin D. And with this the topic for this blog was born.

The first place I looked at was the NHS website. And you know what? It was actually really helpful! Good, easy to understand information. And then of course there is masses of other websites you can find with more information (and trying to sell you supplements). But do we really need to supplement Vitamin D? How much sun does it take to have enough?

Let’s start with what Vitamin D actually does. It helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. And these nutrients are needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. It also contributes to the normal function of the immune system. Sounds pretty important to me!

So where can we find it? Apart from the winter months we should be able to get all of the vitamin D we need from sunlight. The body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight on the skin when outdoors. That’s in the UK by the way. So between October and March we need to look for additional sources. And these can be found in oily fish, red meat, liver, egg yolks and of course fortified food such as breakfast cereals. But it might be tricky to get enough from food alone. And of course with food (unless its fortified and tells you on the box) you can’t be sure how much you are having.

How much do we need? Certainly depends on your age! If you are a baby under 1 the NHS recommends to have 8.5-10mcg (that’s micrograms) a day. Anyone older than that needs 10mcg a day.

Supplements – of course there is a wealth of supplements out there. The department of health recommends that breastfed children and children between 1-4 take a supplement daily. Ooops, well think I missed that boat with Jana!

Of course if you don’t get to go into the sun – because you work nights, drive the tube or wear a Wookie costume all day every day – then definitely get a supplement. That also includes those with very dark skin – for example from African countries.

I don’t really like the scaremongery around overdosing on vitamins as it stops people from taking any. But for those of you who worry about taking too much – you’d have to take over 100mcg a day to overdose on vitamin D. That’s 10 times the recommended dose! Please don’t worry if that happens once though, you’d have to overdose over a long period of time to do any damage to your body as you’ll get too much calcium in your body. This also only applies to supplements. Your body won’t make too much vitamin D from sun exposure and you won’t be able to eat that much food with vitamin D in it!

Back to the sun exposure then. How long should we spend in the sun? What we need from the sun are the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Those aren’t strong enough between October and March in this country. And you also won’t get any from sitting indoors by a window or in your car – you actually need to be out and having uncovered skin. By that I mean your forearms and legs, rather than stripping off completely. Unless it is Naked Tuesday of course… (you can ask Paul about that one).

Controversially the best time to get those rays is between 11am and 3pm. The time they tell you to go indoors as the sun is at its strongest. It’s a fine balance between getting sun burn and risking cancer and getting enough vitamin D from the sun… And how long you need to be in the sun also depends on your skin. There isn’t a fast rule to help with this one. Scientists at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research have devised a calculator and by all means have a go, but I found it way too hard to work. It went from 8 minute to 14 hours by changing the time from 10.30 to midday – so doesn’t make any sense to me. If one of you works out how to use it – give me a shout!

There has been advise from seven British health organisations though. They have issued a “consensus statement”, of their unified views. The advise says that the time required is “typically short and less than the time needed to redden or burn”. Regularly going outside for a few minutes around the middle of the day without sunscreen is suggested as best and that “the more skin that is exposed the greater the chance of producing sufficient vitamin D before burning” (back to Naked Tuesday then!). Importantly, this advice applies in the UK, and not necessarily in hotter climates. So in practice this means between 10 and 15 minutes in the UK summer sun, without sunscreen several times a week is probably a safe balance between adequate vitamin D levels and any risk of skin cancer. Nobody wants to get skin cancer, but we’ve gone from sun worship to sun dread.

And can I just say – sun cream is good, but wearing anything over SPF30 makes it a sun block and therefore none of those rays will get through to your skin.

So what’s the verdict… I for one shall be supplementing to make sure I get enough all year round. That will make sure we get enough on cloudy days as well as the winter. And let’s be honest, there are definitely more cloudy days in the UK than there are sunny ones! But we love the sun too, so we’ll definitely be playing outside as much as we can – with sun cream on (SPF 30) when it’s hot! It takes time for the sun cream to work in the first place so there is time for the rays to get through. And don’t forget sunshine isn’t just good for the vitamin D! It also boosts your mood – especially combined with physical activity.

So get out there this summer and enjoy!


PS: If you are interested in supplements and nutrition in general – come to my information evening this Wednesday 26th April. 8pm my house. It’s free and informal and I’ll simply be passing on what I’ve learned at a recent training about what we should be having, how much and where to find it. Contact me for more information.

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