New findings suggest that 1 in 4 children in the UK are vitamin D deficient. As a result health experts are now calling for new guidelines on vitamin D supplementation as many adults simply aren’t aware of the serious dangers this deficiency can pose to general health. So why is vitamin D so important?
What is vitamin D?
Healthy levels of vitamin D are absolutely essential for the absorption and use of calcium in the body. Calcium has various functions, particularly in the maintenance of healthy bones. If your body does not get enough calcium bone production and bones tissues may suffer. Vitamin D forms under the skin in reaction to sunlight and for this reason is commonly known as the sunshine vitamin. There is also increasing evidence to suggest vitamin D may also help fight diabetes, heart disease, and cancers.
Who is most at risk of a vitamin D deficiency?
Vitamin D deficiency is very common. A recent survey in the UK showed that more than half of the adult population in the UK has insufficient levels of vitamin D. In the winter and spring about 1 in 6 people has a severe deficiency. Those identified as most at risk are advised to take vitamin D supplements routinely.
Sun exposure – cloud cover, sunscreen, season, length of day, and atmospheric pollution all block the suns rays. It has been suggested that even an SPF (sun protection factor) of 8 reduces the production of vitamin D by 95 percent. Because of the cancer risk from staying in the sun, many people need to get vitamin D from other sources.
Dark skin – greater amounts of the pigment melanin in the epidermal layer result in darker skin and reduce the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight.
Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers – breastfeeding can offer many health benefits to a growing infant. However, little vitamin D is contained within breast milk. Therefore it is essential breastfeeding mothers ensure their children receive sufficient levels of vitamin D through fortified foods and supplementation.
Children (6 months – 5 years) – growing children need extra vitamin D because it is essential for growth, in particular the structure and strength of bones and muscles.
Over 65’s – as we age the skin can no longer synthesise vitamin D as efficiently. In addition, as our skin becomes thinner it is unable to produce as much vitamin D. This increases the risk of breaks and fractures.
Where can I get vitamin D?
Exposure to sunlight – this can be problematic if you live in colder countries further from the equator that offer less natural sunlight. 15 minutes exposure to sunshine 3 times a week is often sufficient for your body to naturally produce the RDA.
Diet – Small amounts of vitamin D can be found through diet, in foods such as fish oil and dairy products. However, it is nearly impossible to receive the RDA of vitamin D through diet alone.
Supplementation – health experts recommend vitamin D supplementation, particularly if you are in the high risk categories mentioned above. If you are not considered high risk then a multivitamin can offer healthy levels of vitamin D to aid the maintenance of general health.
How much vitamin D do I need?
The current recommended daily allowance (RDA) in the UK is 400iu. This is a level considered safe during pregnancy and for children under five. Some adults choose to take higher doses of between 800iu to 1000iu if deficient.
What are the risks of vitamin D deficiency?
Most people with a mild vitamin D deficiency either don’t have any symptoms, or have vague aches and pains, and are unaware of the problem. However, a more serious deficiency can result in severe pain, abnormal bone formation, and muscle weakness.
- Rickets – children with a severe deficiency may have a soft skull or leg bones. Their legs may look curved (bow-legged) and might be reluctant to start walking. The UK’s Healthy Start Campaign is so far proving successful in reducing the number of rickets cases reported.
- Poor growth – a lack of vitamin D can affect growth and the height to which a child grows.
- Tooth delay – children with vitamin D deficiency may be late teething as the development of the milk teeth can be affected.
- Immune system – children with a vitamin D deficiency are often more prone to infections.
- Osteomalacia – this is the softening of the bones in adults. Although rare, this condition may lead to difficulty standing and even walking.
- Osteoporosis – bone pains may develop and are typically felt in the ribs, hips, pelvis, thighs and feet.
- Vitamin A – those with a deficiency of vitamin D may also be more at risk from the harmful effects of too much vitamin A.
- Other diseases – in recent years there have been associations with conditions such as cancer, heart disease, infectious disorders, autoimmune disease and diabetes. However, in these cases vitamin D deficiency is thought to be just one contributing factor.
The outlook for vitamin D deficiency is usually excellent. However, it can take time (months) for bones to recover and symptoms such as pain to get better or improve.