Vitamin D: Are you getting enough?

Feeling tired? Run down? A little bit depressed? If you’re too rigorous about the whole slip, slop, slap movement then you may just be deficient in vitamin D.

woman basking in sun

The sun is a funny thing; too much and you might get skin cancer. Too little and you are at an increased risk for developing osteoporosis, depression and auto-immune disease. Vitamin D is an important pro-hormone that largely comes from sun exposure, but are you getting enough?

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin”, a hormone precursor that is synthesised by the human body when it is exposed to the sun. It is also found in a limited number of foods such as fish, egg yolks and fortified milk and bread.

It was discovered in the 1920s in an effort to cure children from rickets, a largely seasonal disorder that caused the bones to soften, fracture and deform. In fact, there has been a recent rise in the number of patients with rickets in developed countries due to over-protection from the sun.

“A significant number of Australians are vitamin D deficient,” says Dr Rebecca Harwin, an experienced clinician and author of Conquer Your PCOS Naturally. “Time spent outdoors, location, the season, the amount of skin exposure, skin colour, the use of sun block and a person’s age all influence the amount of vitamin D produced,” she says.

What does it do?

Vitamin D is important for a number of reasons. Not only does it prevent childhood diseases such as rickets and neonatal hypocalcaemia, but low levels of vitamin D have been linked to osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cancer, hypertension and heart disease.

How much do you need?

As a general rule, during summer most people need a few minutes of sun exposure — that means no protective sunscreen — every day. It’s best to get this exposure before 10 a.m. and after 2 p.m. to avoid any unnecessary UVB rays.

In winter you’ll need about two to three hours over the course of a week. If you have darker skin, you’ll also need to expose yourself to more sun than your fairer-skinned friends.

Are you getting enough?

Most likely not, says Dr Harwin.

“Up to 73 per cent of all Australians can be considered to be vitamin D deficient,” she says.

“Research shows that women are more at risk of vitamin D deficiency and this could be due to certain lifestyle differences between men and women. Men may be more likely to be involved in outdoor occupations and recreational activities, while women may avoid sun exposure by staying out of the sun and wearing sunscreen for cosmetic reasons.”

According to Dr Harwin, signs that you’re not getting enough vitamin D include:

  • Muscular weakness
  • Chronic musculoskeletal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent infections
  • Depression
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Premenstrual syndrome
  • Seasonal affective disorder

“The best way to know is to have a blood test,” she advises.

Where you can find it

If you think you need more vitamin D the best thing you can do is head outside.

While vitamin D can be obtained through certain foods such as fatty fish (salmon and tuna are excellent examples), fish liver oil, eggs and cheese, the best way to boost your vitamin D is through sun exposure.

“Sun exposure is great for the brain and the soul, as well as being important for the body,” says Dr Harwin.

You can also buy vitamin D supplements at your local pharmacy. Dr Harwin says this is particularly helpful throughout the cooler months.

Be safe

A little bit of sun each day, outside the hottest times of the day, is a great way to keep your body and mind healthy. But, like everything, it’s good in moderation.

Always remember to slip, slop, slap if you’re going to be out in the sun for extended periods and if you are fair-skinned and freckled, make sure you keep moles and other skin spots well covered.

More health tips

Health checks you need to be on top of
The best foods for women’s health
The health benefits of sex

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