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Vitamin D Supplements advised for everyone

Monday, 1 August 2016  |  Editor

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Everyone should consider taking vitamin D supplements in autumn and winter, public health advice for the UK recommends.

The advice comes as a government-commissioned report sets the recommended levels at 10 micrograms of the vitamin a day.

Unfortunately, the experts are very concerned that this will not be possible just through the food we eat, particularly when sunlight, which helps in vitamin D production, is so scarce. And these days we spend much more time covering up from the sun by sunscreen or hats and clothes, which reduces our vitamin C absorbing ability even more.

This is even more important for children because low vitamin D levels can lead to brittle bones and rickets in children.

Some Foods give us some vitamin D

Limited amounts of the vitamin are found in foods such as oily fish, eggs and fortified cereals. But, for most people, the bulk of their vitamin D is made from the action of sunlight on their skin.

One in 5 children may not have enough Vitamin D

Official experts estimate that one in five adults and one in six children in England may have low levels.

Now, an extensive review of the evidence, carried out by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), suggests everyone over the age of one needs to consume 10 micrograms of vitamin D each day in order to protect bone and muscles.

And public health officials say, in winter months, people should consider getting this from 10 microgram supplements, because their diet is unlikely to provide it.

Why is vitamin D important?

Its main function is to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, which are vital for the growth and maintenance of healthy bones, teeth and muscles.

In extreme cases, where low levels can lead to rickets in children - the bones become soft and weak and misshapen as they continue to grow.

In adults, vitamin D deficiency can lead to osteomalacia - causing severe bone pain and muscle aches.

But there is a balance - too much vitamin D can lead to high levels of calcium in the blood which can cause heart and kidney problems so anyone with a chronic condition or taking medication should seek advice from their doctor and check that .

Vitamin D: Q&A - Why do we all need to take a pill a day?

Children aged up to four should take supplements each day all year round, as should babies under one year - unless they already consume this in infant formula milk.

Prof Peter Selby, at the University of Manchester, welcomed the advice. He said: 

"In particular, it dispels any doubt of the place of vitamin D in the maintenance of bone health and should ensure that all people will now be encouraged to receive vitamin D to reduce their risk of bone disease and fracture."

Previous advice that recommended top-up daily supplements for a few at-risk groups, including pregnant or breastfeeding women, and over-65s, still stands.

For example, people whose skin has little exposure to the sun, or who always cover their skin to go outside, should take the supplements throughout the year.

Black and Asian people should also consider the supplements all year round. This is because the pigmentation of darker skin reduces its ability to produce vitamin D

Dr Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at Public Health England, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This is a change in advice, previously we have said that babies from six months to five years should have a supplement and only those people at risk of deficiency should take a supplement.

"Previously we felt that everybody would get enough from the sunlight.

"This is new advice based on evidence looked at over the last five years."

And here’s the thing about sunscreen. Nobody would suggest not using it because we want to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful rays. But by applying sunscreen in the way the manufacturers recommend means the skin will not make enough vitamin D.

"When you go out”, he says, “you do need to have short bursts without sunscreen but make sure that you don't get sunburnt.” 

NHS England says vitamin D supplements are available free of charge for low-income families, through the Healthy Start scheme.

Separately, health officials in Scotland and Northern Ireland say they have updated their guidance in line with the new recommendations, but only for people aged over six months. They are currently considering whether to extend the advice to babies from birth.

SACN reviewed a growing body of evidence linking vitamin D to bone and muscle health.

It also looked at studies suggesting Vitamin D levels might have an impact on cancers, cardiovascular disease and multiple sclerosis but found there was insufficient evidence to draw any firm conclusions.

Whilst it is true that vitamin D supplements are relatively inexpensive, as with any other health supplement, they are dependant on the quality of ingredients used and the manufacturing process.

See vitamin D supplements

More details about vitamin D