A nutritional scientist explains how much vitamin D we need, where we can get it from in winter, and how to spot the telltale signs of deficiency.
The winter weather has well and truly arrived in the UK. While that’s very upsetting for our running plans, there’s more than just this to consider. That’s because a huge portion of the UK population is already at risk of a lack of vitamin D, with the NHS suggesting that one in five of us have low levels of the nutrient – and we get it from time spent outside in the sun.
Even more concerning is that conditions associated with a lack of vitamin D are reportedly on the up. And this includes diseases that were once eradicated from the UK, such as rickets.
“We’re seeing signs that we have a big problem with vitamin D levels,” agrees Toral Shah MSc, nutritional scientist and functional medicine practitioner.
However, it is important to note that there is a difference between being low in vitamin D and having a deficiency, says Toral. “Vitamin D deficiency is incredibly dangerous, with fatigue, bone pain and fractures, muscle weakness and cramps and mood changes. Whereas having insufficient levels means not having enough to be optimally healthy.
“But what we are realising now is that what we previously thought was optimal is now not actually high enough.”
What are the signs of low vitamin D?
A vitamin D deficiency can be serious, so it is crucial to fix low levels of vitamin D before they turn into a deficiency. However, doing so can be tricky. “You tend to only get clear cut signs when you are severely lacking in vitamin D,” explains Toral. “But there might be general signs that your body isn’t working optimally because of low vitamin levels.” These signs include:
- Low immune system, such as finding you pick up colds and infections very easily, especially during the winter months
- Not recovering well from exercise
- Struggling to sleep
- Feeling tired
If you aren’t exposed to a lot of sunlight, you’re probably right to assume you’ll be low in vitamin D. “In the UK and in northern latitudes, especially during winter, we’re almost all insufficient,” says Toral. We also need to be especially careful now we are all spending longer time inside: “especially at the beginning of lockdown, when we could only leave the house for an hour a day, we wouldn’t have been getting enough sun on us.”
Toral also points out the importance of wearing suncream when we’re outside, but points out that this does block the absorption of sunlight and limit the amount of vitamin D we can make.
Who is most at risk of low vitamin D levels?
Well, right now, most of us. But there are some groups of people who should be even more cautious of vitamin D levels, including:
- Vegans and vegetarians. “Some of the main sources of vitamin D include oily fish, eggs and fortified dairy products, so if you don’t eat these then you could be at risk,” says Toral.
- People with dark skin. “Melanin makes it harder for you to make vitamin D,” explains Toral. “But also because levels are set according to the needs of white people, there’s not enough studies to show how much people of colour need.”
- Elderly people. “When you’re in your 70s you make about a quarter of the amount of vitamin D that people in their 20s make,” says Toral.
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How can you improve levels of vitamin D?
Of course, we can improve the amount of time we spend outside in the sun and eating those high vitamin D foods. However, time outside is also not an option for everyone, such as those who are currently shielding from coronavirus, and the NHS advises that dietary sources aren’t enough to provide you with all of the vitamin D you need.
If you’re worried about your vitamin D levels, then you should talk to your GP to get a blood test.
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