It may seem bizarre to bring up the “sunshine” vitamin at the height of summer but the timing could not be better given that almost 1/3 of Australians have low vitamin D levels. With the long warm summer days there is no better time of year to boost vitamin D levels.
So why in this sunburnt country of ours are we lacking in the sunshine vitamin? Well it’s a combination of many factors. One is the successful SunSmart campaign ‘Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide’ that has got us covering up and staying out of direct sunlight, which we all know is so important for skin cancer prevention. Another contributor is our sedentary lifestyles, many of us are spending most daylight hours indoors.
Vitamin D is produced from the ultraviolet (UV) light emitted by the sun and is a key nutrient for healthy bones and muscles, therefore to increase our vitamin D levels we need to have time in the sun. As we are being taught to minimise our sun exposure so as to minimise our risk of skin cancer the trick here is to find a balance between being sun smart and ensuring you get enough daily sunlight to support vitamin D levels. Fortunately only a small amount of sun exposure, as little as 5 minutes per day, is needed to get enough vitamin D to support strong, healthy bones.
Certain groups of people are at greater risk of vitamin D deficiency compared to others, this relates to age (infancy and elderly), dark skin tone, working indoors or limiting skin exposure. Unlike other deficiencies, low vitamin D can easily go unnoticed as it may not present with any symptoms. If you fall into any one of these groups or are worried about your vitamin D levels you should speak to your doctor about a blood test to measure your levels.
Unfortunately, if left untreated, vitamin D deficiency can lead to serious musculoskeletal conditions. For children and infants deficiency can cause rickets, a condition that results in soft and weakened bones causing bone deformities. In adults, deficiency can cause bone, muscle and joint pain and low bone density, a condition called osteopenia, which increases the risk of falls and fractures.
The recommended amount of sun exposure to optimize vitamin D levels is dependent on season, location and skin type. As a guide, for moderately fair skin 5 to 10 minutes per day of sun exposure in summer and 7 to 30 minutes per day in winter is recommended. For those with darker skin 3 to 6 times this exposure time may be required. Both arms and legs need to be exposed. Remember, sun safety is still a priority in summer so it is recommended to seek a small amount of sun exposure daily rather than many hours less often. Mid-morning or mid-afternoon are the best times of day to be in the sun, that way you avoid the middle of the day when the sun’s radiation is at its peak. I recommend you visit the Osteoporosis Australia for specific recommendations for you.
So what about diet? There are some foods that naturally contain vitamin D, however these foods are very limited, i.e. oily fish, liver and eggs, and contain only a very small amount of the vitamin. This makes it very difficult to get enough vitamin D from food alone, this is why sun exposure is so important. If you are found to have low vitamin D levels you may need to take a supplement. A health care professional can provide advice on which supplement and in what dosage you need as this will depend on your blood test results. Remember to, when considering bone health, that Calcium is just as important as vitamin D, so aim for 2.5 to 4 serves of dairy per day as well.
As an accredited practicing dietitian and nutritionist I see many people who have been identified as being low in specific nutrients or who generally do not feel 100% and are concerned about whether they are getting enough of the right nutrients. Through undertaking a thorough diet and lifestyle assessment I can give you an idea of what nutrients you may be lacking and how you can boost your nutrition through healthy eating. If you have concerns about your nutritional intake or diet in general then give the clinic a call on 84319100 to make an appointment. And remember, throughout this amazing summer, take advantage of the wonderful sunshine to get your daily dose of vitamin D.
For more information you can also visit Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.