Top up Vitamin D in the sun or pop a supplement, say researchers
David Rose, Health Correspondent
Britons should not shy away from sunshine in summer and should take a daily supplement of vitamin D in winter in order to address serious levels of deficiency, experts say.
Leading doctors and researchers said that more than 60 per cent of the population have “sub-optimal” levels of the vitamin, with the problem being worse in Scotland, the North of England and among ethnic minorities.
Ahead of a major conference on vitamin D and health in London next week, they said people are putting their health at risk because they spend too little time in the sun, possibly because of fears over skin cancer.
Vitamin D, produced naturally when the skin is exposed to sunlight, plays a key role in strengthening bones and can help prevent fractures in the elderly. But there is emerging evidence that it can help prevent a range of other conditions, including asthma, type 2 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
It is also found in a small number of foods, including oily fish, liver and egg yolks, and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) insists that “most people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need from their diet and by getting a little sun”.
Researchers from University College London and others said that everyone should get at least 15 minutes of sunshine a day, if necessary by postponing putting on sun cream until after they venture out.
They should also take a supplement from the autumn to April or May, to compensate for lack of sunshine during winter months.
Barbara Boucher, an emeritus researcher at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, said that taking 10 micrograms (400 international units) of vitamin D each day could “do no harm” and would help raise blood levels of vitamin D.
But she criticised health supplement manufacturers for not providing affordable vitamin D-only pills. Most people can only buy multi-vitamin supplements, which may lead to them taking in too much vitamin A.
Dr Boucher added that concerns over skin cancer are also having an effect, because people fear spending too much time in the sun.
“You’ve not to be afraid of time in the sun,” she added. “Some people think five minutes in the sun will put ten or twenty years on their appearance and will give you ten melanomas. It isn’t quite like that.
“Melanoma is a deadly disease. We do worry so much, but it's sensible to be sensible about it. Don’t be afraid to have a moderate amount of sunshine so long as you don’t get burnt.”
Recent studies indicate that vitamin D supplements could help asthma sufferers who do not respond to the usual steroid treatment, while others say it can protect against bowel cancer and heart disease.
But Adrian Martineau, a doctor at Barts who is investigating how vitamin D might boost the body’s defences against tuberculosis, said that further trials were necessary before high-dose supplementation could be recommended.
The FSA said that only some groups of the population should take a supplement of 10 micrograms per day, including pregnant or breastfeeding women, elderly people and those who cover their skin a lot for cultural or religious reasons or who don’t get much sunlight.