What is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, helps to regulate the amount of phosphorus and calcium in our bodies which is needed to keep teeth and bones strong. It is also important for keeping energy levels up and improving muscle strength. Vitamin D has also been shown to play a role in mental health and immune function.
Vitamin D is incredibly important but is found in very few foods. Most Vitamin D comes from sunlight exposure on our skin. Many people throughout the world are Vitamin D deficient - it is thought that vitamin D deficiency affects around 1 billion people worldwide.
How do I get enough Vitamin D?
Vitamin D can be obtained through diet, supplements and sun exposure. It is very difficult to get enough vitamin D from diet alone. Vitamin D can be found in oily fish such as cod liver oil, salmon, and swordfish and other foods such as red meat, liver and egg yolks. Cereals and fat spreads may be fortified with vitamin D (added to the food). The UK Government recommends everyone should take Vitamin D supplements and they suggest 10mcg a day should be enough for most people.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble, so it is best to take supplements alongside a meal to increase absorption, ideally, a meal that has some fat content. Try and take the supplement at the same time every day so as not to forget. Some studies have shown Vitamin D can affect sleep negatively, so try to avoid taking supplements at bedtime.
Vitamin D from sunlight exposure can prove quite difficult in the UK climate. Between October and March, there is not enough sunlight for the skin to convert to Vitamin D. Between April and September sun exposure is recommended, for 10-15 minutes per day for lighter skin shades and for darker skin shades around 25 – 40 minutes. Minimising the risk of sunburn is paramount so do not stay out in the sun too long without protection. Any sun exposure that makes the skin pink or sore is too much.
Who is at risk of Vitamin D deficiency?
Those at the greatest risk of vitamin D deficiency live in areas where sunlight is limited such as the UK. People who live in care homes or are unable to leave the house are at higher risk due to lack of sun exposure, and those who keep all of their skin covered for cultural or religious reasons.
In people over the age of 50, there are other risk factors which include being female, having poor skin integrity, having darker skin, obesity, poor kidney function, and not spending much time outdoors.
Vitamin D in Menopause
During the peri and post-menopause, women are at risk of osteoporosis, a condition that leads the bones to become thin and leaves a person vulnerable to fractures. Women are much more at risk of osteoporosis than men. This is directly linked to the decrease in the hormone oestrogen. When women no longer produce oestrogen after menopause, bone density can rapidly decline. Women who experience early menopause either naturally or because they have had surgery to remove the ovaries are at greater risk.
The Osteoporosis Society has said that 1 in 2 women over the age of 50 will have osteoporosis and as many people will die from fracture-related causes as they will from lung cancer and diabetes. It is therefore crucial that bone health is taken very seriously during menopause.
Ensuring adequate calcium and vitamin D in the diet is essential for good bone health alongside weight-bearing exercises will also help to strengthen bones.
Some studies show a link between cognitive function and Vitamin D with lower Vitamin D associated with cognitive decline. More research is needed in this area.
What are the symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency?
Symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency can sometimes be non-specific or vague and can therefore be missed and some people have no symptoms at all. Here are the most common symptoms.
- Back pain, especially lower back and hips
- Muscle aches & pains
- Generally not feeling well
What can I do to get enough Vitamin D?
- Take a Vitamin D supplement daily with a meal during the daytime.
- Eat a healthy well-balanced diet, ensuring it contains calcium.
- Increase the amount of weight-bearing exercises. Walking is the easiest way to do this, so take a walk every day if you can.
- Ensure that you have adequate, safe sun exposure between April and September.
- If you are worried that you are severely vitamin D deficient, you should see your GP.
This article is for information purposes only and does not replace any information given to you by your GP or health care professional.
For more information on maintaining healthy bones as a woman, and especially during menopause, see here.
Or for more information on ways to improve menopause symptoms through other lifestyle changes, see here.
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