Is anyone surprised that we Brits are in danger of having vitamin D deficiencies? Those long winter nights might be far from your mind right now, but seeing how keen we are to strip off as soon as the sun comes out might remind us that sunshine, an important source of vitamin D, isn’t that common a sight. A report from Public Health England has today recommended that everyone should take vitamin D supplements (before it was only under-fives and those ‘at risk’ who were recommended to do so). The suggested daily amount is 10 micrograms and, when the sun goes into hiding, it’s difficult to achieve that through food alone.
Why do we need vitamin D? Well, it regulates the calcium and phosphate in the body, making it vital for bone, muscle and tooth development and growth. A lack of it can lead to a higher risk of bone disease and fracture and, in the worst cases, rickets. There are also studies that suggest vitamin D can help the battle against cancers, cardiovascular disease and multiple sclerosis.
The Scandinavians know all about this. They may only have one or two hours of sunlight in midwinter — the land of the midnight sun, and the midday darkness — but their situation is not so different from here. Look at Oslo. In mid-December last year, the sun rose at 9.08am and set at 3.12pm. Aberdeen on the same date? 8.33am and 3.08pm. Even in Edinburgh there were only 7.05 hours of sun, compared to Oslo’s 6.04.
Why does that matter? Well, because in Norway, as in other northerly countries, people are well aware of the dangers of not getting enough vit D. Their Food Safety Authority, like ours, advises getting 10mg a day, and recommends sun exposure and food high in vitamin D (particularly oily fish, including cod liver oil) as a way of doing this, as well as supplements. In 2013 it was even suggested that the recommended daily amount was raised to 20mg per day.
My Norwegian mother used to force-feed us cod liver oil, or tran, every day — as her mother did to her, and back it went through the generations, right back to the Vikings, who would even eat whole cod livers dipped in the oil. Hmm, tasty. To this day, my mother still buys me pots of cod liver oil tablets. The Vikings also rubbed it on their muscles to ease pain — though it probably wasn’t as effective as ibuprofen gel.
It’s also normal to encourage sunbed use; at my local gym in Oslo, there was a row of sunbed cubicles by the swimming pool, and a notice about the importance of getting enough vitamin D all year round. Of course, excessive use of sunbeds can also be dangerous, which could even be why many Brits don’t get enough vitamin D. We’re so scared of sunshine and the risk of skin cancer that we avoid it like the plague. But Dr Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at Public Health England, says that we should in fact allow our sunscreen-free skin to be exposed to short bursts of sunshine — without getting burnt (or even a tan). It’s a tricky balancing act, though. I’m sure we all know someone who got a bit overexcited at this week’s sunshine and now resembles a lobster.
It’s also possible that your mental wellbeing could be helped by extra vitamin D. Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) has been linked to a lack of vitamin D in the past. One town in Norway recently installed mirrors on the mountainside to reflect sun rays into the valley below – an idea that was actually mooted in the early 1900s. (Instead, they built a cable car so residents could go to the mountain top to recharge their vitamin D levels).
So yes, we need sunshine and vitamin D. Not too much sunshine of course — but everything in moderation, as my mother used to say.