Why you need a little sunshine in your life!

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You may have noticed more and more people talking about Vitamin D and its health benefits. Wondering what all the fuss is about? Hopefully the following article will answer some of your questions and help make sure you aren’t one of the many people in the population who are low in Vitamin D.

Vitamin D is the substance made in your skin when you are exposed to enough sunlight – it’s sometimes known as the sunshine vitamin. We’ve known for some time that it promotes healthy bones by allowing your body to absorb calcium, a building block of your bones, from the food you eat. However, we are now realising that Vitamin D may benefit your health in other ways.

A large percentage of the UK population have low Vitamin D levels and there are a few reasons for this. Your skin is only able to produce Vitamin D from the sun between the months of March to September. During the rest of the year the sun in the UK is simply not strong enough to produce Vitamin D and although you can get Vitamin D from a few food sources such as oily fish, lard and eggs, you’ll find it difficult to eat enough of these foods to maintain your Vitamin D levels at a high enough level. This means that your levels of Vitamin D can get very low during the winter months. It’s thought that this may contribute to our feelings of tiredness in the winter, being susceptible to colds and flu, and the winter blues. As well as not being able to make Vitamin D during the winter, we are all spending more time indoors than out, either at home or in the office.

We also know that too much sun exposure can damage our skin so many people now avoid the sun altogether or use sun cream to protect their skin from the sun, which reduces the body’s production of Vitamin D. If you have darker skin you are at risk of having low Vitamin D levels and also the older you are, the more at risk you are. Someone over the age of 70 produces about 30% less Vitamin D than someone younger with the same sun exposure.

So apart from helping you have healthy bones, what else does Vitamin D help with? There is increasing interest in Vitamin D’s role in helping the body fight infection. It seems it can help the immune system fight the bug that is responsible for causing TB and having low Vitamin D levels may make you more likely to catch the ‘flu. We also think that the likelihood of developing certain cancers may be increased by vitamin D deficiency – these include cancer of the colon, prostate and breast.

Vitamin D is also involved in controlling inflammation in the body and low levels of Vitamin D probably makes your body more vulnerable to inflammatory conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Low levels of Vitamin D may also affect your body’s ability to respond to insulin, causing insulin resistance which makes blood sugar control less effective. Running a cosmetic clinic, I am also interested in how low Vitamin D levels might affect the skin. We know that your skin’s exposure to the sun is the primary source of Vitamin D for most people. Research has shown that Vitamin D receptors in your skin regulate skin cells and hair follicles and may be involved in wound healing and protecting your skin from some of the adverse effects of the sun. Some dermatologists have also noticed that boosting Vitamin D levels improves the elasticity of the skin and makes the skin look less sallow and dull.

How do you know if your levels of Vitamin D are too low?

You may be in one of the groups of people who are at risk of developing a deficiency in Vitamin D. These groups include older people, those of us with darker skin, those who cover their skin or avoid the sun and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Being overweight and obese also increases your risk of being low in Vitamin D. What we do know is that a lot of people in the UK are low in Vitamin D. Some symptoms you may feel when you are low in Vitamin D include tiredness, aching bones and muscles and pain on pressing your bones. You may be prone to muscle cramps and feeling generally run down. The only way to really know for sure is by having your blood tested.

How much Vitamin D should you be taking?

It can sometimes be confusing when trying to decide how much Vitamin D to take and to understand the labelling on the supplement bottles. There are two types of Vitamin D, Vitamin D2 which is the synthetic version and Vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 is the natural version and is more effective and hence the better option to take. Vitamin D supplements are described in international units (IU) or as micrograms (mcg). 1 mcg of vitamin D = 40 IU, so for example, 10 mcg of Vitamin D = 400 IU. We know that people who have been diagnosed with low Vitamin D need to take 1000 – 2000 IUs of Vitamin D3 to maintain healthy levels of Vitamin D, once their Vitamin D levels have been brought up to the normal level.

Of course, a really good way to boost your Vitamin D levels naturally is by exposing our skin to the sun, safely. This can happen pretty quickly but remember that if you live in the UK your skin will only make Vitamin D from sunlight during March to September. Guidelines recommend that you should expose your skin for about half the time it takes for your skin to become pink or burn every day. This might be 5-10 minutes if you are very fair or it might be a couple of hours if you are darker. You make more Vitamin D if you expose large areas of skin, such as your back and legs , rather than smaller areas such as your face or arms. The rest of the time you should be practising safe sun exposure, the best way to do this is to wear protective clothing such as long sleeves and a hat and if you wish sunscreen.

Hopefully, this article has increased what you know about Vitamin D and it’s health benefits. One useful way of thinking about Vitamin D is that we all need a bit of sunshine every day to feel healthy. If you can’t get the real thing, you may need to get your sunshine from a bottle!

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