It’s summer again in Australia and that means time at the beach, in the surf and in the pool for many. With such a great sunny climate and beautiful outdoor activities on the doorstep of most Australians, you would assume that Australians would have adequate levels of vitamin D and yet many people are deficient in this important vitamin. An estimated 73% of adults suffer from inadequate vitamin D levels, with almost 60% of women living in southern areas being completely deficient during the winter/spring months.
Why is this? There are many factors influencing our ability to produce vitamin D but the key one is that we spend less time outdoors due to the way we live and work, and when we do go outside we are covering up with clothes, hats and sunscreen to avoid the risks of skin cancer.
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that your body makes naturally from UVB waves from the sun. There is some vitamin D in foods (eg oily fish and egg yolks) but it is not enough. Vitamin D is well known for its role in maintaining the health of bones and improving calcium absorption but it also plays a critical role in our immune health helping to reduce the frequency of colds and flus, and managing more serious autoimmune conditions. Vitamin D also improves muscle strength and can reduce fractures in the elderly. Research shows that low levels of vitamin D are associated with an increased risk of certain cancers and other chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
In our climate being mindful of sun exposure is important as skin cancer is also a big risk. So what can we do to ensure we are getting adequate vitamin D? During the colder months, you may need to spend more time outdoors to obtain vitamin D, compared to summertime when several minutes of sun exposure daily may be sufficient.
You don’t need to tan or to burn your skin in order to get the vitamin D you need and exposing your skin for a short time will make all the vitamin D your body can produce in one day. Exposing a large area of your skin, such as your back, rather than a small area such as your face or arms will help to produce the optimal amount. Factors like your age, the time of year and time of day, where you live in the world and the type of skin you have will all affect how much vitamin D your body produces when your skin is exposed to sunlight.
A few simple steps
Here are a few simple steps to help achieve and maintain optimal D levels. If getting sun exposure check out the UV Index for your location, find out what time the UV will be below 3 for safest exposure. Generally this will be before mid-morning or post mid-afternoon in the warmer months and you should aim for 6 to 7 minutes. In the cooler months, aim for 7 to 40 minutes at noon during winter with arms and shoulders visible, and without sunscreen. Be aware that UV levels are generally highest between 11am and 3pm so be cautious going out uncovered for longer than this. The SunSmart website has loads of great information about the UV Index, and when and how to protect yourself from the sun.
For some people with sensitive skin, family history of skin cancer or other reasons, getting the sun exposure required for optimal vitamin D synthesis may present risks to skin health. In this situation, supplementation with vitamin D may be a safer option and should be discussed with a qualified health practitioner. Being a fat soluble vitamin, vitamin D is prone to oxidisation and deterioration, so it is important to use a high quality vitamin D supplement with proven stability, and to take an amount suitable to your situation.
With vitamin D deficiency having such negative effects on health and increasing the risk of chronic disease, it may also be advisable to talk to your health practitioner about having your vitamin D levels checked.