Here in the UK, summer is already a distant memory (despite the unusually warm weather we enjoyed in much of October). Yes, winter is almost upon us, and with it, the icy temperatures we either love or hate. But while the drop in temperature never fails to go unnoticed, there’s another, less obvious side effect to the winter months: a lack of vitamin D. This key nutrient is produced by the body after exposure to sunlight. This is fine in the height of summer when even a few minutes of sunshine is enough for the body to produce its daily requirements of Vitamin D. Unfortunately this is not the case in winter.
Why Vitamin D is so important
Vitamin D is used by the body to absorb essential minerals like calcium and phosphorus from the foods we eat. These minerals are put to work replacing bone and teeth tissue, and are also essential for repairing muscles, including the heart.
Since these organs are continually being repaired, it’s vital that our bodies are getting these minerals in regular supply. If that doesn’t happen, your bones and muscles won’t be properly repaired, and the result will be weakness and fatigue, and weaker bones, teeth and muscles.
Even a brief shortage of vitamin D can have long-term consequences
Deformities and rickets are common amongst vitamin-D deprived children – and the effects of these conditions are felt well into adulthood. Vitamin D deficiency might also have knock-on effects, as sufferers will be less inclined to venture outside, so they’ll get even less sunlight.
Children aren’t the only vulnerable section of the population, however.
Thanks in part to decreased mobility and ageing skin, the elderly have less opportunity to soak up the required rays. Gender differences are less pronounced; vitamin D deficiency symptoms are roughly as common in women as in men – though breastfeeding and pregnant women may have more to worry about (which we’ll touch upon shortly).
How much Vitamin D do you need?
So, we hear you cry, how much vitamin D do I need? Public Health England, a government body charged with providing us with the information we need to stay healthy, state we need 10 micrograms a day – though some professionals might even recommend upping the dose to 20mcg. As we’ve mentioned, in summer, a few minutes of direct sunlight should be enough for your body to produce this (just be sure to leave off the sunscreen). In winter, you’re going to need to find other sources of Vitamin D (something we’ll talk about in more detail later).
This is, of course, assuming you don’t have a particular medical need that requires you to up the dose even further.
What about children?
The NHS recommends children under 4 take a 10mcg daily supplement. The recommendation falls to 8.5mcg a day for those under the age of 1. Bear in mind however that infant formula is often fortified with extra vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, so children fed formula won’t need an extra supplement.
And what about expectant mothers? How much vitamin D is needed during pregnancy?
As with almost all supplements, pregnant women are right to be cautious – but the recommended dose of 10mcg still applies. That said, studies have shown that higher than normal doses of Vitamin D may be beneficial to expectant mothers and their children, so you might want to consider a temporary, though not excessive, increase in consumption.
So what happens when you take more vitamin D than you should?
The good news is that it’s quite difficult to overdose on Vitamin D. Most people will need to take at least 100mcg a day before side effects appear, and you’ll need to have far more than that over a long period of time before you do yourself serious harm.
That said, taking huge quantities of vitamin D can have deadly effects – specifically a problem known as hypercalcaemia. This is a build-up of calcium in the bloodstream, which causes poor appetite and nausea. The kidneys will need to go into overdrive to flush the body, which leads to frequent urination and kidney stones. In some cases, hypercalcaemia can lead to cardiac arrest.
Vitamin D in winter
So how much vitamin D do you get from the sun? It’s a question we need to answer if we’re to address the winter shortfall and ultimately get to grips with vitamin D’s link to the winter blues. During winter, at least in the UK, we don’t get any vitamin D from sunlight – at all. The sunlight we get just doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation for our bodies to be able to produce it. If not counteracted through diet and supplements, this absence of sunlight-induced vitamin D will affect the body (and the brain, too).
It isn’t just bones and muscles that vitamin D shortages are thought to affect – increasingly, links have been drawn between a lack of vitamin D and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Winter Blues). Some theories link vitamin D intake with the release of feel-good chemicals like serotonin and monoamines, and since many prescription antidepressants work via the same mechanism, it seems plausible that a lack of vitamin D might have the same impact as lowering a dose of antidepressant.
While the correlation between depression and a lack of vitamin D in the bloodstream is well established, it’s less clear whether vitamin D is the cause of depression or an effect caused by depression. But while the evidence is far from conclusive, if you feel that you’re suffering from the winter blues, it makes sense to take a supplement.
Where to get Vitamin D in winter
If you’re hesitant to rely on supplements for your winter dose of Vitamin D, you’ll be pleased to learn that you can get it from your diet.
Tuna, mackerel, cod and salmon are crammed with oil – of the healthiest sort. Such is the power of cod liver oil, in fact, that it’s packed into capsules and consumed daily across the world.
Scandinavian folklore is replete with tales of vitamin D deprived Vikings rubbing the stinking oil into their muscles in order to relieve pain. While we wouldn’t recommend taking things to such an extreme, it’s certainly worth indulging in a seasoned tuna steak every week or so!
While we might think of the white of the egg as the healthier bit – and sometimes even dispense with the yolk entirely for fear of its cholesterol content – that yolk is actually packed with vitamin D. Fortunately, the yolk is the most flavoursome part of the egg, and it vastly improves the texture of some foods. If you’re making a carbonara, try slipping in an extra yolk into the mixture; if you’re making cottage pie, plop a yolk into the mash to improve cohesion.
If you ask a beef-lover for their favourite cut of the animal, the chances are that they won’t reply ‘the liver’, but they probably should. This acquired-taste is well worth the effort, as liver is filled with essential vitamins and minerals. Tread carefully, however – high levels of vitamin A and cholesterol make this particular cut suitable as a treat rather than a dietary mainstay.
A natural diet is, generally speaking, a healthy one, but we shouldn’t discount the benefits of ‘fortified’ foods. Milk (including soy milk), cheese, and cereals are often fortified – so be sure to check the packet. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, then these sorts of foods might represent a rare opportunity to get this crucial vitamin into your intake.
Vitamin D is a crucial component of a healthy diet – and it’s one of the nutrients that our bodies are able to synthesise, given sufficient exposure to sunlight. In Britain, however, said sunlight is depressingly absent for much of the year. Take a 10mcg supplement each day and incorporate more Vitamin D rich foods into your diet, and you’ll be able to get through the chillier months without suffering as a result of a lack of this key nutrient.
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