There is so much to like about winter. I love the crisp, cold mornings; the clear blue light; the bare branches of the trees; the snowdrops and the first primroses and daffodils; the savoury, comforting food; the roaring log fire.
The flip side is that there are any number of things which I don’t like about winter, but right up there must be feeling sniffly or getting a sore throat; the leaden skies and seemingly endless rain or drizzle; the feeling of being a bit down at this time of the year; and crucially, the lack of light.
Last Tuesday was World Cancer Day and therefore an appropriate time to talk about the role of Vitamin D in our health. It is often called the “sunshine vitamin” and there is a distinct lack of it in winter. It is sunlight which produces Vitamin D in the body and during the winter, most of us are very probably deficient. There are a very few food sources of Vitamin D but they will NEVER be sufficient during the winter months, and while it is possible to make all the Vitamin D you need from the sun, this is very dependent on the season, how close to the equator you live and your skin colour.
WHY VITAMIN D IS REALLY AND TRULY ESSENTIAL
Vitamin D is a superstar vitamin, although it is actually a hormone rather than a vitamin. If levels in the body are too low, it is bad news for health, and here we are talking cancer, osteoporosis, depression, rickets in children, asthma, tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis (and other autoimmune diseases), heart disease, diabetes and dental problems, even Alzheimer’s Disease. It is also crucial for healthy muscles, joints and particularly bones as it helps to deposit calcium and other minerals into the bones’ collagen structure, thereby increasing bone mass density and reducing the risk of fractures – in fact osteoporosis becomes more common the further north you live.
As far as cancer is concerned, there has been much scientific research into the link with low levels of Vitamin D and it has been shown that appropriate levels of the vitamin can stimulate the immune system and cut the risk of breast, prostate and colorectal cancer; and the vitamin may suppress tumour formation as well as decrease cancer cell growth. In fact, it has been found that the incidence and death rates for certain cancers are lower among individuals living in southern latitudes, where levels of sunlight exposure are relatively high, than among those living in northern latitudes.
WHY ARE OUR LEVELS OF VITAMIN D SO LOW?
· Sun cream
o Our bodies makes Vitamin D after contact with the sun’s UV rays but as we all slather ourselves with sun cream, covering up every inch of our skin and thereby preventing the rays of sunlight from getting through, none of us is getting enough straight-up sun nowadays, in winter or in summer
o Among other things which can go a bit wrong as we get older, our bodies are less good at turning the rays from the sun into Vitamin D
o Specifically, our kidneys are less good as we age at turning it into the active form of calcitriol
· Kidney or liver disease of any kind also means vitamin D is not converted into the active form
· Tummy troubles
o Problems with the digestive system mean that the digestive tract does not absorb the vitamin D quite so well
o I’m not talking about disease here – just an imbalance which may cause anything from a few manageable symptoms to more serious trouble in the area
o Technically this is defined as a BMI or body mass index of 30+
o In this case, the fat cells in the body hoover up the Vitamin D, storing it in an unusable form and stopping it from circulating around the body in the bloodstream
· Lack of sleep
o Just as you need sunlight to make vitamin D, you need sleep to actually use it
o The presence of the stress hormone cortisol reduces the uptake of Vitamin D by specific Vitamin D receptors
o It literally sits there, in the body, without being able to be used
o What a waste!
· Your skin colour
o The darker your skin, the less Vitamin D you will make
o This is due to the higher levels of melanin in your skin which protect against UV light
o By blocking the sun’s rays, it also curbs the body’s ability to make the pre-cursor to the active Vitamin D
· Nightshift workers
o And anyone else who doesn’t spend much time in the sunlight, including children wearing sun cream all the time and babies
· Quite simply, we all need the sun on our skin!
10 SIGNS OF VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY
· Depression or anxiety (including mood changes or irritability)
· Bone softening (low bone density) and fractures
· Feeling tired all the time / decreased performance
· Muscle cramps and weakness
· Joint pain (especially back and knees)
· Difficulty regulating your blood sugar levels / post lunch energy crash
· Low immunity
· Slow wound healing
· Low calcium levels in the blood
· Unexplained weight gain
Symptoms like these are commonly overlooked because they don’t seem life threatening, and they’re often dismissed as normal everyday aches and pains. But there is no necessity to put up with these symptoms of ill health!
HOW TO UP YOUR VITAMIN D
· Get out into the sun
o Even when it is just a weak winter sun
o Recommended sunlight exposure is between 10 and 30 minutes a day with no sun cream
· Take a supplement
· Eat naturally vitamin D-rich foods
o Oily fish like salmon, sardines, fresh tuna, trout, halibut, mackerel
o High quality fish oils
o Egg yolks
o Do not be fooled into thinking that fortified foods are the same or have similar benefits
o Fortified foods (like cereals, margarine and some yoghurts) contain a synthetic version of the vitamin known as D2 (the natural form is D3)
o Research shows this is less effective at raising levels of vitamin D in the blood
o Or you could of course simply jet off to the sun!