Vitamin D and your health

Vitamin D is important for healthy bones, teeth and muscles, but did you know it has a vital role when it comes to your immune system too? What’s more, a Vitamin D deficiency may also contribute to a chronic pain state.

Why do we need Vitamin D?

We need Vitamin D to help the body absorb calcium and phosphate from our diet. These minerals are important for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. As such, a lack of Vitamin D can cause bones to become soft and weak. In the long term, this can lead to problems with the bones. For example, in children, a lack of Vitamin D can lead to rickets. While in adults, it can lead to osteomalacia, which causes bone pain and tenderness.

Vitamin D and the immune system

Vitamin D also works to reduce inflammation and plays an important role in the regulation of the immune system. In fact, many autoimmune diseases are linked to Vitamin D deficiency, such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.

Vitamin D and chronic pain

In addition, levels of Vitamin D are often lower among those with chronic pain conditions e.g. back pain, migraines, osteoarthritis, than those without. This suggests that Vitamin D deficiency may also negatively contribute towards a chronic pain state. 

How do we get it?

Vitamin D is only found in a small number of foods:

•          oily fish – such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel

•          red meat

•          liver

•          egg yolks

•          fortified foods – such as some fat spreads and breakfast cereals

so it is difficult to get enough Vitamin D from food alone.

The other way we get Vitamin D is through our bodies creating it from direct sunlight on our skin when we’re outdoors.

Vitamin D and the seasons

During the spring and summer months in the UK (about late March to the end of September), most people should be able to get enough Vitamin D through exposure to natural sunlight. Aim for 10 to 20 minutes out in the sun a few times a week to safely top up your Vitamin D levels. This should be between 11am and 3pm and you need to make sure with at least your forearms, hands and lower legs are uncovered.

From October however, as the days get shorter and colder, the decreased amounts of natural sunlight mean that it’s not possible to get the Vitamin D you need through exposure to sunlight alone.

This means, during the winter months, the best way to make sure you reach your daily requirements is to take a supplement.

How much do you need?

According to the NHS guidelines, children from the age of 1 year and adults need 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day. This includes pregnant and breastfeeding women, and people at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Babies up to the age of 1 year need 8.5 to 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day. As mentioned above, we normally get the required amount of Vitamin D from sunlight but only during spring and summer, so it’s recommended that we take a supplement during the winter months.

People at risk of Vitamin D deficiency

However, in some cases, people will not make enough vitamin D from sunlight because they have very little or no sunshine exposure. This may be because they are frail or housebound and so not often outdoors, are in an institution such as a care home, usually wear clothes that cover most of their skin when outdoors, or have dark skin e.g. if they are from an African, African-Caribbean or south Asian background. If any of these examples apply to you, then it’s recommended that you take a Vitamin D supplement throughout the year.

Can you have too much?

You cannot have too much Vitamin D through exposure to sunlight but in order to reduce the risk of skin damage and skin cancer, you should cover up or use sunscreen if you’re in the sun for prolonged periods of time.

If you’re taking supplements, make sure you stick to the recommended amounts for your age (see above) unless advised otherwise by your GP. This is because taking more than the recommended amount over long periods of time can lead to a calcium build up in the body which can in turn damage the kidneys and heart and weaken bones.