Vitamin D — are you getting enough?

I finally got my vitamin D levels tested, and, surprisingly, they’re not too bad, given that I’m darker skinned and work mostly indoors — which are 2 risk factors for vitamin D deficiency. It must have been my trip to Tanzania over the Christmas period that tipped me into the normal range. So my doctor recommended I take a supplement over the winter months only.

What’s so special about Vitamin D? It’s not like any other vitamin — in fact, it’s really a hormone — because not only is it produced in the body, it’s also (almost) impossible to get enough from natural (unfortified) foods, such as oily fish (e.g. sardines, herrings, mackerel) and egg yolks. Besides, the form of vitamin D that is available in food is not the active form — it needs breaking down by the kidney and liver before it can work.

We are most likely to get enough vitamin D, however, through adequate exposure to sunlight — which, of course, must be balanced against the risk of skin cancer. (It’s the UVB rays in sunlight that help our bodies to make vitamin D.)

Vitamin D deficiency usually doesn’t result in obvious symptoms, but without it we wouldn’t be able to absorb enough calcium from food to make our bones strong and sturdy. This puts us at risk of osteoporosis. Vitamin D deficiency can also lead to some other serious health conditions, such as:

  • heart disease
  • autoimmune disease (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes)
  • some cancers (e.g. breast, bowel, prostate cancers).

Some people are at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency than others because their circumstances mean they don’t get enough sun exposure, like:

  • people with naturally dark skin — they need more sun exposure compared with fair-skinned individuals
  • those who spend most time indoors during daylight hours (e.g because of a chronic illness or disability, or because of working conditions such as shift work)
  • the elderly, particularly those in residential homes.

Modern lifestyle in developed countries can also increase the risk of vitamin D deficiency, especially during winter, where people get to work before sunrise and home after sunset.

If you suspect that you’re low in vitamin D, see your doctor to check whether you are at risk. Your doctor may suggest a blood test to check your vitamin D levels. Never take vitamin D supplements without your doctor’s advice — having too much vitamin D is harmful.

Hope the sun is shinning wherever you are. 

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