Oh Please, Not Another Epidemic!

I’m afraid so. Vitamin D deficiency has now reached epidemic levels with recent estimates indicating that more than 50% of the global population is at risk. A high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency has been found across all age groups in all populations studied and even those who are otherwise healthy are not immune to deficiency.

So what are the common symptoms of deficiency?

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Joint pain
  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Restless sleep
  • Poor concentration
  • Headaches
  • Bladder problems
  • Constipation or diarrhoea

So how did it all go so horribly wrong?

Well, it’s not really new news, it’s just that more money is being spent on research and the findings are far from sunny. Vitamin D is produced by our skin when we are in strong sunlight and studies of traditional people living in East Africa gives us a clue to what was probably ‘normal’ when we first appeared on the planet. These people all have dark skin which gives them built-in sun protection, spend most of the day outdoors but seek shade whenever possible. Their skin and sun habits are similar to our ancestors who lived in the same environment but as we moved north to colder climates we weren’t exposed to the same levels of strong sunlight, our skin became paler and vitamin D levels dropped. However, for centuries we still spent a great deal of time working outdoors and even in many of the most northern parts of the globe we ate a lot of  oily fish, the richest food source of vitamin D.

But as industrialisation flourished and technology developed, the pale amongst us increasingly worked indoors and after a long working day, spent what few hours were left settling in front of a warming fire (and sadly fish didn’t feature as often in our diets). And then came sunscreens. Skin cancer was on the rise and governments and health experts ensured that we all became critically aware of the dangers of unprotected sun exposure. Valid advice but like so many health scares, over-asserted. In a matter of only a few years we were suddenly lathering tub-loads of factor 20, 30 or 50 on our pale skins and making our ‘little darlings’ wear deeply unattractive, protective clothing on the beach whilst their southern counterparts were running around with little or no clothes on.

A number of studies indicate that muslim women who wear burka have amongst the highest levels of deficiency even when vitamin D-rich foods are included in their diet. And interestingly, a huge percentage of the research into vitamin D deficiency has been undertaken in Scandinavian countries where the hours of sunlight from November to March are woefully short and most of these countries promote regular consumption of vitamin D-enriched milk, fruit juice and cereals in an effort to make up for the shortfall. The message is clear – we need sunlight.

Vitamin D is actually a hormone rather than a vitamin and understanding this is important. Hormones are produced naturally within the body, vitamins must be obtained through our diet. The body can make most of the vitamin D it needs as long as we get sunshine into our lives – the action of sunlight on our skin produces a substance which is converted by the liver to yet another substance then further converted in the kidneys to the active and usable form of vitamin D. Daily consumption of D-rich foods or D-fortified foods increase levels. However the above statistics indicate that this is not happening and the health risks associated with D-deficiency are wide ranging; brittle bones, mental decline, cardiovascular problems, autoimmune conditions, some cancers…the list is increasing daily.

So What About Vitamin D and Fat Loss?

Vitamin D deficiency has been shown to disrupt the delicate balance of insulin production by the pancreas and increase the possibility of insulin resistance which over time leads not only to weight gain but also an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Research indicates that women who are D-deficient carry between 40 percent and 80 percent more abdominal fat than their D-rich counterparts and this is largely because fat cells are not just storage depots; they are metabolically active and vitamin D, which is stored in fat cells has an important role to play in regulating how much fat we store and how much we burn. Leptin, the hormone that controls appetite is produced by the fat cells and tells the brain when energy stores are replenished and we have had enough to eat but it appears that vitamin D deficiency can interfere with this appetite-suppressing hormone causing us to eat more.

Because vitamin D is stored in fat cells, one would imagine that the bigger our fat cells, the more vitamin D we are able to store, allowing its release into the bloodstream for bone building and cellular health but quite the opposite has been noted. The fatter we are, the higher our risk of deficiency because vitamin D gets locked inside fat cells and unavailable for use. In one study, a group of obese adults (BMI above 30) and a group of lean adults (BMI of 19-24) were exposed to the same amount of UVA/UVB rays and blood levels of vitamin D in the lean adults rose by almost double those in their obese counterparts indicating that when we are overweight we need a lot more.

So What Can You Do?

We know that vitamin D is primarily synthesised in the skin after exposure to sunshine and it was previously thought that as little as 5-10 minutes of sun exposure on arms, legs and face three times a week without sunscreen between 11am and 2pm during the spring, summer, and autumn should provide a light-skinned individual with adequate vitamin D and allow for some storage of any excess for use during the colder, darker months with minimal risk of skin damage – those with dark skin may require twice or three times the exposure. However, a recent study was set up to assess how much vitamin D is needed to ensure optimal rather than just adequate levels in the average person and found that a minimum of 4,000IU of vitamin D is required daily to maintain optimal blood levels. 3,500 men and women had their vitamin D levels measured and completed online surveys to monitor vitamin D status and health outcomes over five years. The researchers found that daily intakes of between 4000IU and 8000IU are needed to maintain blood levels of vitamin D needed to effectively reduce the risk of disease and importantly they also found that this dose was very safe.

From a health and fat loss point of view, daily exposure of your skin to sunlight and a diet packed with foods rich in vitamin D (oily fish; particularly tinned salmon, eggs and fortified foods) are crucial. You may also wish to have your D levels checked. A simple blood test available at your doctor’s surgery measures the level of 25 hydroxy-vitamin D, the chemical formed in the liver during the process that converts sunlight into vitamin D and if the sunshine and the D-rich foods don’t see you reaching the mark, supplementation may be required (always supplement with the D3, cholecalciferol form).

Image reproduced from updates.nutrigold.co.uk

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About Fiona Kirk

When it comes to healthy eating, dieting and finding a route that works, confusion reigns! Nutritionist and best selling author Fiona Kirk’s ability to cut through the ‘noise’ that is being hurled at us from all sides, enables us to make a few small changes that can reap big rewards in minimum time. By writing articles for the press, books (4 to date), giving talks, blogging and contributing to numerous diet and health websites, Fiona has discovered that her somewhat cynical (but always honest) take on some of the nonsense being touted has struck a chord with her ‘followers’ - putting them back in the driving seat of their diet and long term health. After all, she knows good nutrition... and isn't afraid to talk about it! For more from Fiona, check out www.fatbustforever.com
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