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Essential Vitamins 4: Vitamin D

Vitamin D is often referred to as 'the sunshine vitamin,' and rightly so. As long as you are getting 10 to 15 minutes of direct sunshine each day, chances are that your body is making enough vitamin D. However, with more people covering up and applying sun block, as well as a lack of daylight during winter months (especially in the northern hemisphere), vitamin D deficiency is becoming a worldwide problem. In fact, today, an estimated 85% of people are vitamin D deficient.

What it does and why we are deficient

The main role of vitamin D is to regulate the amounts of calcium and phosphate in the body, which maintain our bones, teeth and muscles. Vitamin D also helps to regulate blood pressure, maintain brain health, strengthen the immune system, regulate mood and may help to prevent some cancers. Unlike other vitamins, our bodies can actually make their own vitamin D by converting sunshine into chemicals, which eventually become vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 is the variant that our bodies prefer, as opposed to less efficient D2, which is often found in fortified foods and dietary supplements.

One of the main reasons that many of us in the U.K. (and worldwide) are thought to be deficient is that we are under more pressure than ever to cover up and put on sunscreen when outdoors, due to the risks of skin cancer. This fear of the sun has resulted in adults and children covering themselves in toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals. There is enough scientific evidence proving that what we put on our skin gets absorbed into our bodies as well as proving that sunscreens are full of chemical ingredients we need to be concerned about (oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, parabens, phthalates).

The sun is the source of all life on earth. Humans require sunlight exposure for vitamin D and we are actually built to receive sunlight. There are ways of getting the much needed vitamin D from the sun without harming yourself. Unprotected sun exposure is one of the best ways but should be limited to no more than 20 minutes a day, avoiding those times when the sun is at its strongest. if using sunscreen, make sure you choose natural sunscreens without harmful chemicals.

Signs and symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency in children can cause bones to become thin and cease to develop properly. In extreme cases, this can lead to the condition known as 'rickets', a condition involving a softening of the bones that can lead to fractures and deformity. This softening of the bones in adults is called osteomalacia, and can often cause pain and muscle weakness. Other symptoms of deficiency may include fatigue, depression, anxiety and inflammation. Links with other serious health conditions, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and cardiovascular disease are currently subjects of research but have yet to be conclusively proved. If you are concerned that you may be vitamin D deficient, have your doctor or qualified nutritional therapist perform a blood test, which is the only way to achieve a conclusive picture of your levels. The 25-hydroxyvitamin D test is the most effective gauge, as other tests may give false readings.

How to meet your vitamin D quota

It is recommended that everybody over the age of 1 should achieve 10 micrograms of vitamin D, daily. Babies up to 1 year old should be consuming 8.5 micrograms. Exposure to direct sunlight is the way that our bodies have naturally evolved to get vitamin D. Therefore, the sun should normally be the first choice for most people. 10 to 20 minutes of direct exposure to sunshine, a few times a week, should be enough for most people. Food-based sources of vitamin D are relatively scarce, compared with other essential nutrients. By far the best food source is from oily fish, such as wild salmon, tuna, mackerel and halibut. Beef liver and eggs are also sources, albeit in much lower amounts. In some countries, milk is fortified with vitamin D, however here in the U.K. this is not the case.

Supplementing with vitamin D

As stated above, many supplements contain vitamin D2, which is much less easily absorbed and used by our bodies. In addition, vitamin D2 is the type found in most multivitamins, prescriptions, most supplements and vitamin D fortified foods. It is a patented drug that behaves like vitamin D but it is not natural and has been responsible for the vast majority of vitamin D toxicity reports and should be avoided. For this reason, I prefer to recommend opting for natural cod liver oil. This age-old remedy will provide not only all your vitamin D3 in one teaspoon-sized serving, but will also give your daily requirement of vitamin A, as well as plenty of omega-3 fatty acids.

Vitamin A is an important antioxidant tied to eye-related disorders. Vitamin A is absolutely essential to vision health. Vitamin D may also play a key role in preventing macular degeneration (on the increase worldwide). In addition, cod liver oil is an excellent source of 0mega-3 anti-inflammatory fatty acids. Vegetarians and vegans should be aware that many vitamin D3 supplements come from animal sources, while many vegetarian supplements are in the form of vitamin D2. However, most health food shops will stock vitamin D3 supplements that are suitable for vegans, often derived from lichen.


Vitamin D plays a vital role in many areas of the body, most notably, strengthening and supporting bones, teeth and muscles. Those of us lucky enough to live in sunny countries can often achieve the required quantities of vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. However many people may want to consider including more oily fish in their diet and even a cod liver oil supplement to make sure that they are not deficient. Always consult a doctor or qualified nutritional therapist to have your levels checked and to discuss your nutritional options as vitamin D3 can increase calcification in the body, especially in a magnesium deficient body.

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