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Why the big deal about vitamin D?

Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” and not just because we make this vitamin from exposure to the sun. Getting sufficient vitamin D has also been linked to maintaining a positive, sunshiney mood, regulating our emotions and reducing depression. Early studies are also indicating a role in supporting weight loss.

Without sufficient vitamin D levels, our bodies also can't properly process other vitamins and minerals, like calcium. We need vitamin D to form the hormone calcitriol, which we use to absorb calcium from our diet. Without adequate levels of calcitriol our bodies will take calcium from the stores in our bones, which weakens our skeleton and prevents strong, new bone from forming.

But wait, there's more. Low vitamin D levels have also potentially been linked to an increased risk of multiple sclerosis, heart disease, flu, infection and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.

It's little wonder then that maintaining sufficient vitamin D levels has everyone’s attention. UK health guidelines recommend supplementing vitamin D, but is that necessary in Australia where the weather tends to be on our side?

Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly clearer that many Aussies aren’t making enough vitamin D either.  Less time spent outdoors (especially as we get older) has reduced our exposure to the sun which has resulted in falling levels of vitamin D.

What does a vitamin D deficiency feel like?

You may not notice that you’re lacking in vitamin D because the symptoms of a deficiency are so easily attributable to other causes. Look out for things like aching muscles and bones, poor wound healing, low mood, trouble sleeping, hair loss, excess sweating and general fatigue.

If you think you may at risk, check with your health care provider to have your levels checked and discuss your options.

Get a daily boost

Even if you’re feeling fine, it’s a good idea to give yourself a daily vitamin D boost. Food sources include:

  • canned tuna
  • sardines
  • cod liver oil
  • beef liver
  • cheese
  • egg yolk
  • mushrooms
  • shellfish 

But the best way to get your daily dose of vitamin D is from UVB radiation from the sun. The Cancer Council advises that when the UV Index is 3 or above, most people will get adequate vitamin D from just a few minutes outdoors, most days of the week. If you’re going to be spending more than a few minutes outside on these days, remember to apply your sunscreen. 

When the UV index falls below 3 (such as in late autumn and winter), the recommendation is to spend time outside in the middle of the day with some skin uncovered. Healthy Bones Australia recommends two to three hours per week for anyone living in the southern part of Australia (that means south of Brisbane or Geralton if a line was drawn across the country).

You can check the UV index for your area on the website. It will be listed alongside the forecast for the day. You can also download the Cancer Council’s SunSmart app to your smartphone. 

Embrace the quiet outdoors

Give your vitamin D levels a fighting chance and up the time you spend outdoors. For some this will be a welcome thing to do, but others may struggle. Not everyone enjoys things like walking, fishing, camping, gardening, tennis, hiking or golfing – and that’s okay. 

If you’d rather be reading than getting active in the sunshine, why not simply take your book outside? You could also try eating your breakfast or lunch al fresco each day. To make this a more enticing proposition, set up a table and some comfortable chairs close to the house. You’ll soon find yourself venturing out there to do everyday things like chop the veggies for dinner, enjoy your morning cup of tea, take a phone call, watch the birds or check your emails.

In fact, once you get into the habit of taking yourself outside more often, you’ll wonder why you ever spent so much time inside.