We know vitamin D is imperative to our health – but what exactly does it do?
Vitamin D is an important tool to maintaining good health. Known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, perhaps the best way to get it is by simply being outside. However, in the UK, it’s not always that easy.
Between March and September, you might be able to roll up your sleeves and enjoy the rays on your wrists but during the other half of the year, the sunlight isn’t strong enough.
And it’s for that reason the NHS advises supplementing vitamin D during the winter, especially if you’ve got darker skin. But what supplements work, why’s it important to have enough of the nutrient and what foods are high in it? We’ve been speaking with a range of experts to find out everything you need to know about vitamin D and the best ways to make sure you’re getting it into your system.
Why is vitamin D important?
“Vitamin D is important for giving our bodies vital nutrients to help keep bones, teeth, and muscles healthy,” says Dr Diana Gall, GP at Doctor 4 U. “These nutrients are calcium and phosphate and they’re essential for bone growth, supporting the immune system and many other body functions.”
What are the benefits of vitamin D?
“Ensuring your vitamin D status is optimised will help keep you well, support your immune health and prevent deficiency symptoms which include fatigue and low mood,” says nutritionist Kim Pearson.
Dr Gall adds: “The main benefit of having sufficient levels of vitamin D is for bone health. Vitamin D helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in our bodies to promote strong, healthy bones and teeth. Other benefits include supporting the immune system, regulating insulin levels (which helps with managing diabetes) and preventing diseases such as cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.”
There are also psychological benefits of vitamin D, too. “This vitamin is a great mood booster, as it’s important for brain function and has been known to reduce symptoms of depression and improve mood,” says Dr Gall.
What is the best way to take vitamin D?
Most of the vitamin D we absorb comes from the sun. “The best way to get vitamin D is for our body to make it from direct sunlight during summer months (strongest between 11am to 3pm) in the UK (from about March/April to September),” explains Georgine Leung, registered nutritionist and Kurami nutritionist. “This is because the sun has to be high enough in the sky for the ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) to get through to us.”
“Vitamin D needs to be provided to the body, skin, and kidneys,” says Dr Gall, “The kidneys have an important role in metabolising vitamin D and putting it to good use. Spending some time each day in the sun even when it’s not particularly hot can ensure you have sufficient levels of this vitamin, but ensure you’re wearing sunscreen when you’re exposed to sunlight.”
If you’re unable to spend a lot of time outdoors, Dr Gall recommends taking vitamin D supplements or getting it naturally from foods that are rich in vitamin D such as fatty fish and seafood.
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Though Pearson notes that eating foods rich in vitamin D may not be enough to maintain optimal blood levels and so, she also recommends looking into a supplement. “Spray supplements are particularly effective as they’re absorbed via the inner cheek directly into the bloodstream, bypassing the need for digestive absorption,” explains Pearson.
If you opt for a supplement, Leung says, “It is recommended that all adults (and children over five) should take a vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms during autumn and winter months.”
Which foods are high in vitamin D?
Maintaining vitamin D levels is important. So much so, the NHS recommends upping the amount of vitamin D you get from your diet during the autumn and winter.
“Unfortunately, there are few good quality, natural food sources of vitamin D,” says Pearson. “Oily fish, such as wild salmon, sardines and mackerel and eggs, provide vitamin D.
“Otherwise, most other food sources come in the form of highly processed fortified foods such as margarines and breakfast cereals, which I don’t recommend regularly including in the diet.”
It’s also worth flagging that mushrooms can also be a really good source of bioavailable vitamin D2, with more research coming out on the subject.
What are the different types of vitamin D and which ones should we be taking?
The most common types of vitamin D are D2 and D3, and both are important for getting the benefits of this vitamin, stresses Dr Gall.
“The main difference in the two is where they’re sourced from,” she explains. “Vitamin D2 comes from plants, and D3 comes from animals. Vitamin D3 is thought to be more effective at improving our overall levels of vitamin D. Our skin makes vitamin D3 when it’s exposed to sunlight so if you’re regularly outdoors you’ll be getting all the vitamin D you need, however, you may take vitamin D2 supplements if you need to boost your levels.”
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What are the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency?
Vitamin D deficiency can cause significant problems with the bones. This includes the softening of the bones, bone loss, and bone deformities such as rickets, says Dr Gall.
“Pains in your bones or back may be a sign that you’re deficient in vitamin D,” she adds. “You’re more at risk of bone fractures if your levels are particularly low. You may also experience fatigue and tiredness, and low mood if you don’t have a sufficient amount of vitamin D.”
Pearson says it may also cause reoccurring infections. “Suffering with frequent coughs and colds can be a tell-tale sign, as vitamin D is vital to our immune system health,” she says. “Without sufficient amounts, our immune cells are unable to react appropriately leaving us more susceptible to infection.”
If you believe you are low in vitamin D, Dr Gall says, “Your doctor should be investigating why you are deficient and to establish whether there is a reason you’re not absorbing enough of this vitamin.”
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