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The D word

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Spring is almost upon us and it is time to look ahead. We’ve suffered through October to March with short days, grey skies, cold and rain, but March signals the imminent arrival of sunshine, blue skies and warmth. That’s the theory at least, but in this country you never know.

Winter, and festivities like Christmas and new year can leave us feeling sluggish and heavy. Many people are run down and unhealthy after bugs, coughs and colds, and long periods spent indoors with the central heating on full blast.

If that’s you, this is a good time to look forward positively and think about ways to perk yourselves up and get your health back on track. If you’ve not already done so, it’s time to address any weight gain, step up exercise levels and review diet and alcohol intake.

However, another less publicised health issue is equally deserving of attention, as it is becoming increasingly common and has serious consequences – vitamin D deficiency.

Studies have shown that low Vitamin D levels can:

  • weaken your immune system

  • increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis

  • increase the severity of arthritis

  • increase the risk of falls for older people

  • increase the risk of stress fractures

  • cause reduced limb muscle strength

  • cause joint pain and aching, particularly with movement

Most people have heard of rickets and will think of Dickensian times and children with deformed and bowed legs. This can be caused by an extreme lack of Vitamin D. But Vitamin D deficiency is on the rise today and risks the health of many adults who are unaware of their own low levels.

Vitamin D helps to control the amount of calcium and phosphate in our bodies, which are needed for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. It is found naturally in only a small number of foods, including oily fish, red meat, liver and egg yolks, as well as fortified breakfast cereals.

Even if you do eat plenty of these foods, it can still be difficult to get the recommended amounts of Vitamin D as the main source is the action of sunlight on our skin.

Vitamin D is often called the sunshine vitamin because your body produces it when skin is exposed to sunlight. Where possible, going outside and exposing your arms and face to sunlight is the best way to get vitamin D. From June to August 15 minutes a day is generally enough. Dark skin needs more exposure, and more exposure is also needed in winter.

We are bombarded with advice about skin cancer awareness, practising ‘safe sun’ and protecting delicate young and older skin from the risks of ageing, so many of us shield ourselves from the sun wherever possible, slapping on copious amounts of sunscreen. But, as with so many things, getting the balance right is important.

Because of the lack of sunlight, slight deficiency is quite common in winter in the UK, especially in the north. There is some evidence that arthritis progresses more quickly in people who don’t have enough vitamin D.

In 2016, in light of this increasing problem, the government’s Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition reviewed previous advice and now recommend that all children and adults consider taking a vitamin D supplement, and seeking advice and possibly a test from your GP.

Further studies are under way, looking at the link between low vitamin D and various diseases. So check out your levels and be good to your bones as part of your new commitment to health. They have to hold you up for a lifetime.

Wendy O’Neill, Nutritionist

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