How To Make Sure You Get Enough Vitamin D

Despite living in a famously sunny country, we've been getting reports of widespread vitamin D deficiency for some time now. The solution to this problem is simply the judicious use of a plentiful, if somewhat maligned, natural resource.

Picture: Jono Haysom

As an ardent Beatles fan, I became aware of the lesser-known fact that John Lennon and Paul McCartney used to sunbathe in Liverpool's Strawberry Fields cemetery. This behaviour probably seems extraordinary for people in present day Australia where we're used to being lectured about the importance of protecting ourselves from the sun.

I also knew that old family friends who grew up in England after the Second World War were forced to swallow cod liver oil. This is also unusual today; some of us do dole out fish-oil tablets in the morning, but usually because of dubious advertising claims that they'll enhance our childrens' performance on school tests.

These otherwise seemingly disconnected post-war temperate zone activities (sunbathing and consuming cod liver oil) are linked by their capacity to supply people with vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Around 90 per cent of our vitamin D3 is produced in the skin by ultraviolet irradiation B (UVB) of its precursor 7-dehydrocholesterol.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D3 can be made by direct exposure of large areas of human skin (such as your tummy, back or legs) to UVB in the middle of the day (when UV index is greater than three).

Vitamin D3 is also found in oily fish and cod liver oil, but the capsules commonly taken as supplements contain only about 1,000 IU each. The body self-regulates production of vitamin D, some is stored in fat and you cannot produce too much.

Low vitamin D epidemic

Australia is facing an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency, with as much as a third of the population having less than recommended levels. Even people such as gardeners, who are outside all day but lathered in sunscreens and wearing long-sleeved shirts and broad hats have chronically low vitamin D3 levels.

Vitamin D is important for maintaining calcium and phosphate levels for bone formation, and allowing proper functioning of parathyroid hormone. Low levels of this hormone can produce fatigue, muscle pain and weakness, weight gain, poor sleep and concentration and bone diseases.

Low vitamin D levels have been implicated in forms of cancer, high-blood pressure and autoimmune disease, such as multiple sclerosis. Indeed, multiple sclerosis is an interesting example here.

It has long been known that the incidence of multiple sclerosis is much lower at the equator than in temperate zones. Many have wondered whether the difference can be explained by the higher levels of UVB and light clothing worn at the equator that combine to elevate vitamin D3 levels.

The overall health impact of even mild vitamin D deficiency is unlikely to be positive, so this is not an issue we can afford to ignore. It just so happens that Australian health professionals are already raising awareness of the problem.

Sun phobia and low vitamin D

There is such a fear of skin cancer in Australia that many health professionals are reluctant to recommend any direct exposure to sunlight in the middle of the day, when vitamin D3 stimulating UVB are strongest.

We routinely seek removal of solar keratoses, and basal and squamous cell carcinomas from our face and hands. And it is appropriate to protect those heavily exposed areas with sunscreens.

Yet, our capacity to make vitamin D is also restricted by sunscreens and our inability to open windows in our workplaces. Applying sunscreens commonly blocks 95 per cent of vitamin D-stimulating UVB light, as does glass.

Sunbathing before a closed window that allows through damaging UVA, but not beneficial UVB, is much more risky than exposing your tummy, back or legs to direct sun.

To maintain vitamin D levels, all most of us need to do is expose one of these large areas of our body to direct midday sunshine in winter (or mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun in summer) for 10 to 15 minutes or until the skin is lightly pink.

Meanwhile, continue to protect your face and hands with sunscreens for cosmetic purposes and to limit chronic over-exposure.

Darker skinned people and those living further away from the equator (Hobart instead of Cairns, for instance) will require slightly longer exposure. It's as simple as sitting in your garden or before an open window, letting direct sunlight onto skin exposed through rolling up your sleeves, trouser legs, or the bottom of your shirt.

It's time we had a conversation about sensible sunlight exposure of our otherwise hidden bodies; particularly since this potential antidote to the epidemic of autoimmune diseases of various types raging in our community is so readily available and inexpensive.

It's not your face and hands, but your tummy and back that need to be exposed more often to direct sunlight for brief periods. It's a question of using sunlight appropriately and getting your gear off in sensible moderation.

Thomas Faunce is ARC Future Fellow at Australian National University He receives funding from the Australian Research Council under a Future Fellowship. The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    Would have been nice to see a chart of the daily Vitamin D requirement and recommendations of type of tablet. I personally take 10,000 IU's daily and have found that I rarely if ever get colds or Flues. The other important factor to take into account is whether you use gel caps with oil or solid pills. The solid pills are absolutely useless and should not be used. The Gel caps are reasonably cheap and are easy to find. Also note that Vitamin D can help ease the symptom of the winter blues.

      I've been told by doctors that 2000-5000 IU of Vitamin D3 per day in Winter will keep your immune system in tip top shape to fight off any colds or flus, but it's pretty hard to OD on it
      During Summer, 2000 IU is enough

      High doses (about 2-3g) of powdered Vitamin C can also make your immune system invincible, mix it with juice of some kind and stay under 4-5g which will make you gassy or give you diarrhoea. Some people say you can take higher doses when you're sick without getting gassy or liquidy, but personally I have not tried it.

      If you ever feel a flu coming on, if you feel your throat is getting a bit itchy, or your nose is dripping slightly, making ginger tea with freshly sliced ginger will stop it dead in its tracks
      You can also add some lemon or honey for additional firepower.
      You can try eating raw ginger or raw garlic but that's a lot tougher

      Propolis and manuka honey (has to be above 10+ activity) on their own can stop colds and flus.
      A really hot curry can burn up pathogens as well

      But usually whether you get sick or not depends on how stressed you are, that's the key factor whether your immune system functions or not.

    Fascinating article.

    I had a recent blood test and I do indeed have a significant Vitamin D deficiency.
    I've since been taken a once-daily 1000 IU Vitamin D supplement and my levels on re-testing have risen slightly, but not enough.

    As a Desktop Support engineer who is often stuck indoors on techie stuff, I sometimes wonder whether my team or should consider enforcing a short "outside time" break.

      Are you using tablets or capsules? If solid tablets, they don't work. If capsules, take a second, it's well withing the tolerance before it becomes too much.

      I'm in a very similar position. Recent blood test, really low Vitamin D deficiency, also taking the supplements. I used to work in offices with big sunny windows, and haven't for about 3 years- I think this has made a real difference. Unfortunately, because I'm always wearing long-sleeved shirt and suit, going outside for 10 minutes won't help me much- I just got to make more of a point of being out in the sun on weekends.

    My housemate has been prescribed Vitamin D liquid 5ml every 3 months due to Vitamin D deficiency.
    Every 2 or so years I end up standing in a PUVA machine 3 times a week for 6 or so weeks. Every time I am warned of the dangers but I have to balance the dangers against the benefits to my skin.

    Glad to see some greater mainstream awareness of this issue. I take 1 x 5000IU every couple days since mid 2009.

    If you're just hearing about this and looking for some introductory information be sure to check out the 60 min podcast at https://www.grc.com/health/vitamin-d.htm.

    Since 2009 I've been getting my 5000 IU D3 gelcaps from iHerb buying the NowFoods brand. 6 month supply (2 x 120 bottles) for around AUD$25 delivered... although probably $30 now with our $.. http://www.iherb.com/Now-Foods-Vitamin-D-3-5-000-IU-120-Softgels/10421

    I had my deficiency confirmed by a blood test. As such I take 5k IUs a day. It's brought my VitD levels up to an appropriate level.

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