How Can We Get Enough Vitamin D in Winter?
Vitamin D is now considered a “super-nutrient” as it has a vital role in many important functions in the body. It is no longer just considered a vitamin to keep our bones healthy, as research has now found that a deficiency of this nutrient may be linked to a wide range of health issues, including most chronic illnesses. The winter days mean our most obvious source of vitamin D, sunlight, is lacking from our day-to-day life; so, how can we ensure we are still giving our bodies the right amount of vitamin D?
What does vitamin D do?
It contributes to numerous functions in the body including:
- keeping our bones in good condition
- keeping our immune system strong
- aiding he absorption of vital minerals from our diet, such as calcium and phosphorous (for healthy bones), zinc (for good immune protection) and iron (for energy)
- helping our cardiovascular system to function optimally
- keeping our brains working well, thereby reducing the risk of mental health issues
It is thought that vitamin D regulates around 1000 different physiological processes in our bodies. Low vitamin D can contribute to a myriad of chronic illnesses - ones that have been going on for months or years without improvement or resolution such as depression, SAD, osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases (e.g. lupus, colitis, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, diabetes Type 1, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis), as well as high blood pressure, diabetes Type 2, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, and repeated infections.
Deficiency of vitamin D is also thought to be a contributing factor in many cancers such as breast, kidney, prostate, pancreatic and ovarian cancer – diseases caused by poor immunity and disruption of certain cells in the body.
How do we get our daily dose of vitamin D?
Our main source of vitamin D (between 80% and 100%) is through exposure of our skin to the sun. This process is very dependent on the following factors:
- whether there is adequate and regular sunshine in our daily environment
- whether we expose our bodies to good amounts of sunshine daily without the use of sunscreens
- and whether we have we have good levels of cholesterol in our blood. When sunshine in the UV-B spectrum strikes the skin, it converts a substance called 7-dehydrocholesterol into Vitamin D3. People on statin drugs run a higher risk of becoming Vitamin D deficient if their cholesterol drops too low.
Unfortunately our climatic conditions in the UK prevent us from getting much exposure to sunlight, particularly during the winter months. If you are unable to be outside much during the day, cover yourself up when outside and consistently use skincare products with sun-protection factors (SPFs), you may well be vitamin D deficient. Additionally if you have darker skin, you may not absorb as much of this vitamin as someone with fair skin, as the level of melanin in darker skin acts as a natural SPF.
In years gone by, our ancestors spent a lot of the day working and travelling outside. Over the years, the trend has moved to working indoors, travelling in buses, cars, the underground or trains and living in cities where buildings block the sun.
“Vitamin D deficiency is now recognised as a pandemic, with more than half of the world’s population thought to be at risk of deficiency related disease” (Pizzorno J, Integrative Medicine Vol.9 No. 1 Feb/March 2010 – What we have learned about vitamin D dosing).
UK government guidelines published in 2009 recommended that certain groups, including children under five, pregnant and breast-feeding women, those who are not exposed to much sun and those over 65, should take a daily supplement of vitamin D. However due to the epidemic proportions of deficiency, this has since been updated with a government commissioned report published in July 2016 recommending that everyone in the UK should take a vitamin D supplement especially in the autumn and winter months.
Can we get Vitamin D from our diet?
Very few foods contain vitamin D – oily fish such as sardines, herrings, salmon and mackerel are good sources (so is cod-liver oil) and it is also found in beef liver, caviar, butter, cheese and egg yolks – interestingly these foods are also high in dietary cholesterol. However the amounts we may get from these can vary considerably on a daily basis, thus we cannot rely on food to provide us with the optimal amounts of daily vitamin D.
So how do we optimise our Vitamin D?
To help us stay in good health both mentally and physically we need to ensure we have optimal levels of this nutrient in our cells (between 100 – 200 nmol/l). The best way to ensure this is to take a supplement daily. However our needs can vary due to the factors mentioned above. It is therefore worth considering getting your level tested twice a year (late spring and late autumn). This can be done via your GP.
Depending on my clients’ results and their symptoms, this is what I usually recommend to them as a daily supplement:
- 1000 iu if marginally deficient (test result 70 – 100 nmol/l)
- 2000 iu if moderately deficient (test result 50 – 70 nmol/l)
- 3000 iu if severely deficient (25 -50 nmol/l)
- 4000 iu or more daily if extremely deficient (test result <25 nmol/l)
(Note: NHS and general lab reference ranges work to lower levels – levels deemed to prevent rickets, not to optimise health!)
If you have to take the more than 3000 iu of vitamin D daily to correct a deficiency, you will need to recheck your level after three months to ensure a) the level is optimising and b) you are not over-dosing as too high a level of vitamin D can also have a negative effect on health! If when you get your test results, you are still at a deficient level, try increasing your intake by 1000 iu or 2000 iu daily for three more months and then check again.
Supplements should be in the form of vitamin D3 since this is the form naturally produced by the cells under the skin upon exposure to sunlight. It should ideally be in a capsule form with an oil such as sunflower or olive oil for easier absorption by the body (remember vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and therefore needs fats to enhance absorption).
In conclusion – if you want to stay healthy and happy or want to support your recovery from any chronic illness that is not improving, think about vitamin D – the all- important “super-nutrient”.
Photo by Conner Baker