We may live in a sunburnt country, but four million Australians now suffer from a vitamin D deficiency, according to the latest ABS data. Here’s the lowdown on how a vitamin D deficiency can seriously compromise your well-being.
WHAT IS VITAMIN D?
Although widely known as the ‘sunshine’ vitamin, vitamin D is in a class by itself, behaving more like a hormone. It is primarily known for its role in bone health by helping the body absorb calcium. It is also needed to quell inflammation, bolster the immune system and protect against certain cancers.
There are three ways to get this much needed vitamin: the sun’s UV rays, food
sources and supplements. While foods like oily fish, eggs, milk, mushrooms, fortified products and supplementation provide a dose of your daily vitamin D, 90 per cent of it is being made when the sun’s UV rays strike your skin and reacts with a cholesterol like substance to produce it.
WHO’S AT RISK?
There are a number of factors that increase the risk of having inadequate vitamin D, among them are people who spend less time outdoors, older age, darker skin pigmentation, geographic location, dietary habits (i.e. excessive caffeine and soft drink intake) and sunscreen use.
THE SUNSCREEN PARADOX?
To apply (or not to apply) sunscreen is still a matter of scientific debate. Some studies show that sunscreen does not block out the absorption of vitamin D, while some dermatologist recommend a more moderate option by applying sunscreen on your face, and allow your arms and legs to get a small amount of unprotected sun exposure (around 15 minutes max), before applying sunscreen or covering up.
Still, there is a legitimate concern that too much sun exposure can damage skin and cause skin cancer, exposing the skin to UV rays for long periods of time will not increase vitamin D levels any further, which is why a balanced approach to sun exposure is most likely your best bet to avoid the risk of skin cancer and yet get an adequate dose of sunshine.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU’RE DEFICIENT?
Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are non-specific and for many people are subtle, however, they often include fatigue, bone and muscle pain, muscle weakness, weight gain, poor sleep and concentration. Left untreated, too little vitamin D may be putting us at risk of diabetes, heart disease, dementia, osteoporosis, increased risk of infections, auto-immune diseases, and even cancers.
HOW TO MINIMISE YOUR RISK?
Have a healthy respect for the sun. Treat it like medication, using the lowest
dose necessary, but don’t avoid it completely. You only need to expose your skin for about 10 minutes a day. Caution: more skin you expose, the less time you need.
Boost your “internal sunscreen”. Include diet rich in antioxidants and beneficial fats. These strengthen skin cells and help protect the skin from sun damage. Eating lots of colourful fruits, vegetables, nuts and wholegrains every day, along with an oily fish two to three times a week will achieve this.