Sunday 24 September 2017

Sunshine vitamin: The dangers of being deficient in Vitamin D during the long dark Irish winter

The people of Ireland are not getting enough vitamin D from their diet, writes Eilish O'Regan who explains the importance of the sunshine vitamin and the dangers of being deficient in it

Oily fish is rich in Vitamin D
Oily fish is rich in Vitamin D

Vitamin D, or the lack of it, is a serious health concern for people living in Ireland. Some 74pc of adults and 88pc of primary school children are not getting the recommended intake of vitamin D, according to the IUNA National Children's Food Survey.This is a real concern as vitamin D is essential to absorb calcium for healthy bones.

Professor Michael Holick is a world-renowned American endocrinologist, specialising in the field of vitamin D and author of The Vitamin D Solution. He was in Dublin recently to meet with key stakeholders in the field here. This is what he had to say on the subject:

Vitamin D is made in the skin by exposure to the sun
Vitamin D is made in the skin by exposure to the sun

WHAT DOES IT DO?

Vitamin D helps our bodies use calcium to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. It is essential as it can help our bodies absorb more calcium from the food and drink we consume to help develop strong teeth and bones. Bones are living tissues in your body, which means that they are constantly renewing themselves.

HOW DO WE GET IT

Our bodies make vitamin D from the sun - sunshine helps our bodies produce vitamin D. However, in Ireland generally, there isn't the right amount and type of sunlight to produce enough vitamin D, particularly in the winter months.

It is also important to protect ourselves from the sun but this can again reduce our stores. For this reason, it's important to include reliable sources of vitamin D in the diet from foods such as cheese, oily fish and mushrooms.

OILY FISH AND LIVER

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Mackerel and other oily fish are rich in Vitamin D

People in Ireland of all ages have inadequate dietary intakes of vitamin D - Irish research shows that people of all ages are not getting enough vitamin D from their diets. This is because the foods that naturally contain vitamin D, such as oily fish and liver, are not consumed in sufficient quantities.

WHAT DOES A DEFICIENCY MEAN?

Vitamin D deficiency is a public health problem in Ireland - the incidence of rickets amongst infants in Ireland has indicated widespread low levels of vitamin D in the Irish population. Rickets is a severe form of vitamin D deficiency causing deformity of the bones.

Vitamin D deficiency causes bone disease - osteomalacia, which is associated with aches and pains in the bones and muscles, is often misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome. Vitamin D deficiency is common, especially among the housebound elderly.

Recent evidence suggests that vitamin D reduces the risk specific complaints for a variety of ailments such as asthma. It also suggests that it reduces the risk for developing infectious diseases. including upper respiratory tract infections and influenza viral infection. Vitamin D deficiency has also been associated with increased risk for upper respiratory tract infections in children and adults as well as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression and Alzheimer's disease.

HOW DO I KNOW IF I'M DEFICIENT?

A simple way to test if the sun is at an angle that allows you to get vitamin D from it, is if your shadow is longer than you are tall: if this is the case, you are not getting enough vitamin D from the sun and the only way you can get enough of it is through your diet.

Sources of Vitamin D
Sources of Vitamin D

Using the app 'dminder.info' provides guidelines for when and how much vitamin D you can make from sun exposure and provides guidance to prevent excess sun exposure and skin damage.

Vitamin D is especially important during pregnancy. Infants obtain 50pc-60pc of their mother's vitamin D stores at birth. The average dietary intake of vitamin D among pregnant women in Ireland is 80pc below the current recommended level. Fortified food and drinks can play an important role in boosting our vitamin D intakes.

There is growing evidence of vitamin D's benefits beyond bone health. Studies have also demonstrated improved blood levels of vitamin D are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Low vitamin D levels have also been linked with some cancers such as breast, prostate, colon, and pancreatic cancer; research is ongoing.

Professor Holick was in Dublin as a guest of Avonmore Supermilk

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