Government advice on vitamin D recommends that adults and children over the age of one should take a daily vitamin D supplement - 10 micrograms (mcg), particularly in autumn and winter, in order to protect our musculoskeletal health.
But what is vitamin D? What happens if you don’t get enough? And do you really need a supplement? Ceitanna Cooper, Registered Associate Nutritionist at AXA PPP healthcare, has the answers.
Why do we need vitamin D?
Ceitanna says: “We need vitamin D to help our bodies absorb calcium and phosphate from our diet. These minerals are important for healthy bones, teeth and muscles.
“While we know it’s important for building strong bones, which can ward off the bone thinning disease osteoporosis, vitamin D has other important roles too, including regulating cell growth, neuromuscular function, reducing inflammation and helping to maintain a healthy immune system.”
What are the risks of not having enough vitamin D?
Ceitanna says: “If you’re lacking vitamin D, this can cause bones to become soft and weak, which can lead to bone deformities. In children, a lack of vitamin D can lead to rickets, which increases the likelihood of broken bones. In adults, it can lead to osteomalacia, which causes bone pain and sensitivity.”
Where can I get Vitamin D?
1. Being outside in the sun
Ceitanna says: “Sunlight, specifically UVB rays, is the best source of vitamin D. Over the autumn and winter months, sunlight is too weak to allow our skin to make enough vitamin D, which is why the government advises you take a supplement during this time.”
“However, during the rest of the year, 10 – 15 minutes of sun exposure to your bare skin- particularly to the face and wrists – will help build up your stores of vitamin D (it’s fat-soluble, so can be stored in fatty tissue), but take care not to burn.”
“Sitting by a window doesn’t count, as UVB rays can’t penetrate glass.”
“Never be tempted to stay in the sun for longer than this without sun protection, as exposure increases the risk of skin damage and cancer.”
2. Dietary sources
Ceitanna says: “When sunlight is limited then what you eat can play a part. But as few foods contain vitamin D in sufficient quantities, it can be difficult to get enough from diet alone. However, you’ll find small amounts in things like oily fish (including herring, salmon, mackerel, and sardines), liver, eggs and mushrooms. It’s also fortified (added) into foods such as: cereals, margarine, reduced fat spreads, and milk (including some almond milk products).”
“If you’re a vegan or strict vegetarian, you should monitor your vitamin D levels more closely as most of the foods which naturally contain vitamin D are products of animal origin.”
Ceitanna says: “Although most people should get sufficient vitamin D by following a healthy, well-balanced diet and by getting regular sun exposure, the Department of Health recommends we all consider taking a daily supplement during winter (including pregnant and breastfeeding women).”
Who is at risk?
Ceitanna says: “Those at greater risk of not getting enough vitamin D are strongly advised to take a daily vitamin D supplement throughout the year.”
- Babies from birth – 1 year
- All children aged 1 – 4 years
- Older people, or those who are frail, housebound, or have limited sun exposure
- People who wear skin concealing clothing
- People with dark skin who have higher melanin (skin pigment) levels, which slows vitamin D production.
“If you’re concerned you may not be getting enough vitamin D, talk to your GP about supplementing your diet with a good-quality vitamin D capsule.”
The advice in this article is based on recommendations from the government's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) following its review of the evidence on vitamin D and health (PDF, 4.2Mb).
How to get vitamin D from sunlight - NHS