Just Add Sunshine!

18th October 2019

As the nights close in and the levels of sunlight start to drop, Lisa Botwright explores how to get that extra dose of vitamin D – AKA the ‘sunshine vitamin’

Vitamin D plays a vital role in keeping our bodies healthy, but since sunlight is our primary source – and hey, this is England – many people struggle to create enough during the winter months. In fact, studies estimate that around 20% of the population in the UK have significantly low levels of vitamin D in their blood.

Despite its name, this often-misunderstood ‘vitamin’, is in fact a ‘prohormone’ – a substance the body converts to a hormone. And unlike other vitamins, only about 10 percent of the amount we need comes from food – the rest we make ourselves when we’re exposed to direct sunlight.
Our kidneys use vitamin D to produce blood calcium, which is important for a healthy immune system. Calcium is also needed to keep teeth and bones healthy – in severe cases, a lack of vitamin D can cause problems such as rickets, or its adult equivalent, osteomalacia. Since Vitamin D receptors are present in our central nervous system, a depleted source can affect neurotransmitters like serotonin, which are linked to depression, and can make generally make us feel tired and sluggish.

From around October until March, sunlight simply doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation for our skin to be able to make a sufficient supply of vitamin D. During these months, we need to boost our intake from food sources (including fortified foods), and consider taking a supplement. Public Health England (PHE) recommends all adults and children over one year (not breastfed infants or those on fortified formula) should take a 10-microgram supplement during autumn and winter.

Food-wise, oily fish such as salmon, herring and sardines are all great sources of vitamin D. Fresh fish, particularly, is packed full of the nutrient, and the pickled variety of herring and sardines are good substitutes. Egg yolks, especially those from chickens allowed to roam free outside soaking up the sunlight, are packed full of good fat, vitamin D and minerals. You can increase your vitamin D through pork, beef and lamb (especially organic), but bear in mind that slightly less popular cuts such as offal – liver and kidneys etc – can offer more per kilogram than regular meat.

Vegan sources are a little harder to come by. In fact, the only plant food to offer this vital vitamin is mushrooms – especially those that have been grown under natural sunlight (it really is all about sunshine!). However, there are lots of suitable fortified foodstuffs, such as tofu, almond milk and soy products.

There are two main types of Vitamin D – D2, found in food, and vitamin D3 – the type we produce from sunlight. It’s our levels of D3 we should be aiming to raise, if we’re considering a supplement, be it a timed-release capsule, an oral spray or drops. Leading nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville recommends a ‘liquid vitamin D3 [that] will go into the blood vessels under your tongue so it is absorbed quickly, rather than having to be digested if you take a capsule’. (Try NHP’s Vitamin D3 Support, £12.97, www.naturalhealthpractice.com).

The other alternative to boosting our vitamin D is to take a very long holiday somewhere gorgeous and sunny – but sadly, this is a bit impractical for most of us. So, in the absence of a first-class, open-ended plane ticket to Florida, it’s time to turn to sardines and supplements to set us up for the winter.

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