There are a wide range of vitamins and minerals that are required for human health and wellbeing. Vitamin D is considered one of the most important vitamins and is considered absolutely essential in order for the body to function well. When someone doesn’t have enough of a particular nutrient, this is regarded as a deficiency. Vitamin D deficiencies are surprisingly common and are much more common in specific demographics. Unlike many other nutrients, Vitamin D is not easy to obtain through the diet. So let’s take a look at this essential nutrient, how we can all make sure we are getting enough of it and what to do if you suspect you might not be.
Benefits of Vitamin D
What’s so special about vitamin D anyway? Well, there are several different reasons why this is an important nutrient. Firstly, vitamin D is essential for the immune system. In fact, the recent coronavirus pandemic has led to further research into the vital impact of Vitamin D on the immune system. Vitamin D is also an important component in the nervous system and is essential for the proper functioning of muscles. Vitamin D is also important because it is necessary for the body to absorb calcium. Calcium is essential for healthy bones, and it is also a critical component of the nervous system. Without adequate levels of this vitamin, the calcium level can also drop to below optimum levels, even if the person is getting enough calcium from dietary sources. For this reason, Vitamin D is vital in preventing osteoporosis when the bones become weakened.
Suppose you do not have enough Vitamin D. In that case, you may experience tiredness (fatigue), pain in the bones, muscles, or joints, and you may experience mood changes such as depression or anxiety. You might also experience cognitive issues such as loss of concentration. These symptoms, however, are also common to many other vitamin and mineral deficiencies and many other medical conditions. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is imperative that you get tested before deciding you have a particular deficiency. In order to test for a vitamin deficiency, the doctor will simply chat to you about your symptoms and conduct a simple blood test to check your levels.
Where Do We Get It?
The body makes Vitamin D, but it cannot do this without one very important thing – sunlight. Unlike other vitamins and minerals, this essential vitamin is synthesized in our body when the skin is exposed to the sun’s light. Some people get enough from everyday exposure to daylight, while others struggle to get enough. This might be because of the fact they live in places where there are fewer daylight hours, for example, further away from the equator. It could also be because the weather is cloudy, the atmosphere is polluted and smoggy, or because they are spending most of their time indoors. Covering up all of the skin when outdoors (such as we do when the weather is cold) can prevent sunlight from reaching the skin, and this can reduce the amount of Vitamin D that is produced.
There are differences in vitamin levels that are caused by skin color and age as well as by external factors such as geographical location. People who have darker colored skin produce less Vitamin D than those with paler skin, and so they require more sunlight in order to create enough of the vitamin for their body’s needs. As we age, our bodies become increasingly less able to convert sun exposure into Vitamin D. This means that these groups of people are a lot more at risk of suffering from deficiencies. One of the most effective strategies for health and wellbeing is to exercise outdoors; this provides exposure to sunlight and also boosts health and wellbeing.
A Note on Sun Safety
While sunlight is vital for producing this essential vitamin, it is important to stay safe in the sun. Ultraviolet radiation can cause skin cancer, so it is important not to let skin become damaged. Using sunscreen can reduce the amount of vitamin D produced, but it is still important to protect skin from sun damage. Finding a balance is essential; plenty of time outdoors, but protecting ourselves from the harmful effects of the sun using hats, sunscreen, and time in the shade when appropriate.
Dietary sources of this vitamin do exist, but very few foods actually contain vitamin D naturally. Many of the products we eat have been fortified with vitamins, and this vitamin is one of the most commonly added to foods. Things like cereals, milk (and some dairy-free milk alternatives), and orange juice often have Vitamin D added to them. The best dietary sources of Vitamin D is in fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, trout, and mackerel. Egg yolks contain small amounts, and some mushrooms which have been exposed to UV light also deliver some Vitamin D (check the packaging to find out if your mushrooms have been exposed to UV light).
Supplements are available in a few forms; pills, liquids, and sprays. Many broad range multivitamins deliver Vitamin D, but always check this out to ensure that the supplement you choose is providing the amount that you want. There are two types of supplements available:
- D3 supplements are derived from animal sources.
- D2 is derived from plant sources.
If you are taking a supplement, it is best to take it in the morning because it works in the opposite way to melatonin, our sleep hormone. Before you begin taking any supplement, it is worth discussing with your doctor your reasons for wanting to take a supplement and any contraindications that there may be (for example, if the supplement might interfere with other medication you are taking).