Vitamin D absorbs calcium, supporting bone and teeth health and cell growth. As we’re spending more time in our homes, a daily dose of vitamin D has never been more important to help you and your family stay well.
Vitamin D, aka the sunshine vitamin, is one of the most important vitamins for our bodies – and even better, we can make it ourselves by getting out and enjoying the sun! This helpful vitamin allows us to absorb calcium and phosphate from the foods we eat to keep our teeth, bones and muscles healthy. However, if we don’t get enough sunlight or eat enough vitamin D-rich foods, it’s all too easy to develop a deficiency in vitamin D.
But how do you know if you are lacking in vitamin D? We have written this definitive guide to help you spot vitamin D deficiency symptoms and find out if you need a little more of the sunshine vitamin in your life. You’ll also find tips on how and where to get more vitamin D and just how much you need to stay healthy.
Why is Vitamin D important for health?
You might know about the link between vitamin D deficiency and rickets (which is called osteomalacia in adults). Rickets is a condition which affects the bones. It causes them to become soft and weak, often leading to deformities and fractures.
In fact, vitamin D3 was first recognised when scientists were trying to work out why cod liver oil was so effective in dealing with rickets. But our bones are not the only parts of our bodies that rely on enough vitamin D.
Lack of vitamin D has also been linked to muscle weakness and fatigue. Studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency can contribute to an impaired immune system. Vitamin D receptors in our brains help brain cells receive and understand chemical signals – a lack of vitamin D is likely to affect the way our brain communicates.
What are the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency?
90% of the vitamin D our bodies need comes from getting out in the sunlight and only 10 per cent is from your diet. Even if you eat fortified foods, you could be at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Symptoms of low vitamin D vary from person to person, but if your routine and lifestyle keeps you away from sunlight, look out for these symptoms:
The so-called happy hormone (serotonin) falls with lack of sun exposure. Our bodies need vitamin D to activate to effectively make serotonin in the brain. If you feel low or irritable, it could be a sign that you’re deficient in vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency is strongly linked to muscle weakness in ageing adults.1 Legs can feel heavy and it can feel difficult to stand up and climb stairs, all of which make falls and fractures an increased risk. Vitamin D also helps our bodies absorb calcium to keep bones, muscles and teeth healthy, making it even more important to keep topped up.
Getting sick often
If you seen to catch every cold going around and get sick a lot, it may be down to low levels of vitamin D. This is because vitamin D is essential for keeping your immune system strong and healthy.
It is recommended that everybody starts to supplement vitamin D in the early autumn to make sure they have enough vitamin D in the winter.
If your appetite has gone through the roof or you are gaining weight, vitamin D may be playing a role. Research has revealed that low levels of vitamin D are associated with being overweight and obese, whereas higher levels of vitamin D are associated with reductions in body fat.
This may be because vitamin D helps to control a hormone in the body called leptin, which helps to inhibit hunger and reduce fat storage. If the body is low in vitamin D and struggles to produce healthy levels of leptin, this could contribute to overeating and weight gain.2
Please note: People considered overweight or obese need more vitamin D that a person with a healthy weight. This also applies if you have a large muscle mass.
People who are tired all the time, especially older adults, may not suspect a vitamin D deficiency could be draining their energy. Increasing vitamin D levels have been seen to improve signs of fatigue.3
Achy bones and joints
Vitamin D deficiency affects bone health, which could result in a throbbing or achy feeling in your bones. This is often most noticeable in the knees and back. Those who don’t have enough of this important vitamin may be at more risk of fractures.
A common sign of vitamin D deficiency is a sweaty scalp (this is one reason newborn babies are monitored for head sweats). A sweaty scalp could be an early sign of vitamin D deficiency.
If you are over 50, you lose some of your natural ability to produce vitamin D from sun exposure – making you one of the most at risk groups. Your kidneys also become less efficient at converting the vitamin, making it important to stay active and spend plenty of time outside in your 50s, 60s, and beyond. Read more about the importance of vitamin D when you’re older here.
Are you at risk of Vitamin D deficiency?
Did you know that according to national surveys taken out across the UK, approximately 1 in 5 of the population has low vitamin D levels? It isn’t surprising really when you think about it. Our bodies can only make vitamin D when exposed to direct sunlight, which may be possible in summer for some people, but becomes difficult for everyone during the darker winter months.
You can also get vitamin D from animal produce like meat, fish dairy and eggs, which are either naturally high in vitamin D (red meat, offal, eggs and some seafood) or have been fortified with vitamin D (most dairy). Other foods like breakfast cereals, fruit juices, faux meat, plant milks are often fortified (please check). Wild mushrooms and those grown under a UV light are also great sources of vitamin D2.
People who don’t get outside much, have dark skin, like to cover up, or don’t eat animal products are naturally at more of a risk of vitamin D deficiency. This is why the government now advise that everybody should think about taking a vitamin D supplement, particularly in the autumn / winter months.
Groups of people who are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D:
- Vegans can have low levels of vitamin D, because most natural sources are animal based. Pay extra attention to your diet, and eat fortified foods (cereals, soya milk, almond milk, and orange juice) and take a high-quality vitamin D supplement
- Limited sunlight exposure can put you at risk. If you are housebound for any reason, if you live in a grey climate, or if you cover your skin for work, lifestyle or religious reasons, your skin might not get enough sunlight to make the vitamin D your body needs. Remember, your skin needs to be exposed to the sun without sun protection or skin covering it to absorb vitamin D. It’s recommended that you look to increase your dietary vitamin D or consider a supplement
- People with darker skin as the pigment in your skin will reduce your ability to make vitamin D, even if you get plenty of sunlight. Older adults with dark skin are particularly at risk. A carefully planned diet rich in vitamin D, a supplement or both is recommended.
How to increase your Vitamin D levels
If you think you or someone you care for is at risk of low vitamin D, there’s plenty you can do.
What you eat
Enrich your diet with natural sources of vitamin D, here’s some of the best foods you can eat if you are low on vitamin D:
- Red meat
- Offal, e.g. animal stomach, tripe, brains, heart, liver, tongue and kidneys
- Wild mushrooms / those grown under UV light
You can also choose foods fortified with vitamin D, like:
- Plant milks
- Breakfast cereals
- Fruit juices
- Plant Milks
- Meat alternatives
- Fat spreads
Try a supplement
Another option is taking a daily multivitamin or Vitamin D supplement. Experts recommend 400–800 IU/day to maintain good health. There’s a supplement out there for everybody, from the elderly and newborn babies to people following a vegan diet, find out more about which type of vitamin D is best for you here.
Get out in the sunshine more
Most people can make enough vitamin D by simply being out in the sun every day for short periods of time with their hands, forearms or lower legs uncovered and without sun protection – you don’t have to go and sun it up in a bikini (unless you want to!).
However, there is no definitive answer to how long you have to stay out in the sun for because everyone is different. Skin colour and skin exposure play a big part in how much vitamin D your skin will absorb, e.g. people with dark skin such as those from an African, Caribbean or South Asian origin will need to spend longer exposed in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D as somebody with lighter skin.
You also need to make sure you don’t burn in the sun, so make sure you always have sun protection and sunglasses handy for when it gets super sunny and you can feel your skin getting red or burnt. Please seek shade if you plan to be out in the sun for a long time – the longer you stay in the sun unprotected, the greater your risk of skin cancer is.
Myth busting: Your body can’t make vitamin D with sunlight that shines through a window – the glass will block the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from getting to your skin.4
If you think you are at risk, seek advice from a medical professional or ask your Doctor for a blood test to assess your Vitamin D levels. With your Doctor’s support, start taking a quality Vitamin D3 supplement to meet UK Government guidelines.
Last updated: 7 July 2020