What you need to know about Vitamin D

How is it good for you, and how can you get more of it? Dr Michelle O'Driscoll has the answers
What you need to know about Vitamin D
Salmon is a good source of vitamin D

VITAMIN D is a fat soluble vitamin (along with vitamins A,E and K) which is famous in terms of its health properties, but also well known for the challenge that we face of getting enough of it!

Yet many of us are unclear as to what it actually does in the body, where we can get it from, and how to safely supplement it if needed. Below are some of the key facts.

The roles of Vitamin D

The most well-known benefit of vitamin D is bone health. Firstly, it helps us to absorb calcium from our gut, which as we know is vital for bone strength. Secondly, vitamin D acts as a regulator of our parathyroid hormone levels. If these levels go too high, then our bones become demineralised and weak, and vitamin D steps in to prevent that from happening.

This dual action of vitamin D makes it an important player in bone health, particularly for women, who are at an increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

Furthermore, vitamin D is not only useful for bone health, but provides a range of other health benefits too, including mood regulation and a boosted immune system. Hence, it is very important that we have adequate vitamin D in our systems, but this can be easier said than done.

The sources of Vitamin D

Vitamin D can be elusive, and difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities despite the fact that it can be stored in the body for later use. There are three main sources of vitamin D to consider: production by the skin, provided by our diet, and supplementation.

Our skin has the ability to produce its own vitamin D in response to UV light, but because of our Irish weather or other factors such as working indoors or night shifts we don’t usually get enough exposure to light to create sufficient quantities for ourselves. There is also the very real risk of skin cancer if you allow excessive UV exposure, so this risk needs to be taken into account and sun cream use is advised. If your skin gets burnt, it becomes less effective at producing vitamin D anyway, so it’s in your best interest to keep it protected.

There are other ways to ensure adequate levels of vitamin D, diet being an important albeit limited one. Become aware of what foods you are eating, and whether or not you’re consuming much of those that contain vitamin D, such as eggs, dairy, oily fish or fortified foods such as cereals.

If you feel that you need a vitamin D boost, it is considered safe for an adult to take a vitamin D supplement. Its dosage is measured in micrograms (mcg) or International Units (IU). The standard adult dose is 10mcg or 400IU daily. This is available over the counter from your pharmacy, and does not generally require an initial blood test before taking it. However, for anybody who is at risk of not absorbing fats very well, as is the case in coeliac disease, cystic fibrosis or the elderly, it would be advised to get your vitamin D levels checked first. Failure to absorb fats can also impact upon your absorption of vitamin D. A blood test would give a clearer indication as to whether or not a higher prescription dose is needed.

Vitamin D for my baby

Babies require adequate vitamin D for the rapid growth they experience in their first 12 months of life. Deficiency can lead to rickets or soft bones. Guidelines regarding vitamin D supplementation for babies have changed as recently as February this year, as infant formula has been fortified with increased levels of vitamin D thanks to an EU regulation.

The requirement to provide an additional supplement is now specifically for breastfed babies, or babies that receive less than 300ml or 10oz of formula per day. In these cases, your baby should be given 5mcg or 200IU daily for their first 12 months of life. This is the case even if a breastfeeding mum is taking a vitamin D supplement herself. There are several different formulations available, including drops and a spray, for ease of administration.

Awareness of vitamin D’s uses and sources is useful so that you can aim for a balanced diet, safely optimise your light exposure, and choose supplementation if required. The health benefits are numerous, and worth being informed about.

The most well-known benefit of vitamin D is bone health.

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