Health industry

The UK’s Vitamin D ‘Epidemic’

How is your lifestyle and diet affecting you health? This week is national vitamin D awareness weeks and news today reports that the UK appears to be in the middle of an ‘epidemic’ that has left up to 90% of the population deficient for Vitamin D and at risk of bone disease.

The discovery of the extent of our nations vitamin deficiency follows a five-fold increase in the number of case of rickets in the last 15 years. Rickets, a bone deforming disease that is caused by vitamin D deficiency, was common in the Victorian era had been nearly eradicated by the addition of vitamin D to foods such as milk, margarine and cereal. However, it would appear that poor diet and lack of sunshine have lead to a nation that is vitamin D deficient and a return of ‘Victorian health standards’ 1.

Our nations Vitamin D levels

Studies have found up to 9 out of 10 adults have inadequate levels of vitamin D – 1 in 6 having severe deficiency – and estimate that 40% of children could have lower than recommended levels 2,3. These findings have encouraged NICE to examine whether all children ages 6 months to 5 years should be given vitamin supplements that are currently only available to children of low income families but may now be necessary as a preventative measure and ensure our children grow up with healthy bones 4-6.

Side effects of Vitamin D deficiency

Many people with vitamin D deficiency do not show symptoms or simple feel fatigued or have more aches and pains. Severe or long term deficiency can lead to brittle or painful bones, and muscle weakness and has also been linked to other conditions including heart problems and autoimmune disease 7-9.

What can I do?

Deficiency is easy to correct as most of our vitamin D comes from the sun – during the summer just 10 minutes of sunshine each day allows our skin to make sufficient amounts of vitamin D3. As suncream blocks 99% of possible vitamin D production the advice is to spend frequently, short periods of time in the sun without suncream but to avoid burning, which can increase your rick of skin cancer. The increase use of suncream, which is now present in many face moisturisers, is another factor that may be contributing to this current epidemic.
However from the months of October to March the sun is not strong enough – and does not have the required UVB rays – to allow the skin to produce vitamin D. Instead we must get our vitamin D from foods such as oily fish and eggs; which are high in vitamin D2, fortified milk, yogurt and cheese or from supplements.

I’m thinking of taking supplements, how much should I take?

The Department of Health in UK recommends that:-

  • all pregnant and breastfeeding women should take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms (0.01mg or 400IU) of vitamin D to ensure the mother’s requirements for vitamin D are met and to build adequate foetal stores for early infancy
  • all babies and young children aged six months to five years should take a daily supplement containing vitamin D in the form of vitamin drops to help them meet the requirement set for this age group of 7-8.5 micrograms (0.007-0.0085mg or 280-340IU) of vitamin D a day
  • babies fed infant formula will not need vitamin drops until they are receiving less than 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day, as these products are fortified with vitamin D
  • breastfed infants may need to receive drops containing vitamin D from one month of age if their mother has not taken vitamin D supplements throughout pregnancy
  • people aged 65 years and over and people not exposed to much sun should also take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms (0.01mg or 400IU) of vitamin D 10.

1. Harries, C 2012
2. Morton, JP 2012
3. Madden, K 2012
4. http://www.nice.org.uk/nicemedia/live/13795/63153/63153.pdf
5. http://guidance.nice.org.uk/PHG/71
6. Marchisio, P 2013
7. Baeke, F 2010
8. Pearce, SH 2010
9. http://www.nos.org.uk/document.doc?id=1352
10. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/Vitamin-D.aspx

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