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What are the health benefits of vitamin D?

Lesley Dobson / 16 April 2012

Why vitamin D could be the one supplement you really do need

Man sitting in a field in the sunshine
Vitamin D is important to maintain strong bones, muscle function and a healthy immune system

Vitamin D is thought to help protect us against a whole range of diseases – from diabetes to osteoporosis and from bowel cancer to heart disease, yet few of us get enough of it from natural sources, especially as we get older.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, and the three other Chief Medical Officers for the UK, have contacted medical staff to raise awareness of the risk of deficiency. “A significant proportion of people in the UK probably have inadequate levels of vitamin D in their blood,” she explained. Some estimates suggest that may apply to as many as 25 per cent of us.

In a new study from the USA, scientists looked at the records of 1,830 patients, to find out the level of vitamin D deficiency in people who have experienced broken bones and dislocations. All the patients, aged 18 and over, had been to a university trauma centre over a period of 21 months. Thirty nine percent of them were vitamin D-deficient.

“Vitamin D deficiency affects patients of all ages and is more prevalent than we thought it was,” said Brett D Crist, MD, lead investigator and co-director of the Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Missouri. These findings are important “as Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to increased incidence of fracture nonunions ( broken bones that fail to heal).”

Dr Crist suggests that advice is that doctors should consider prescribing a supplement for anyone with a fracture to help them towards the best possible recovery. He already gives vitamin D and calcium supplements to trauma patients in his care, with just a few exceptions.

“Although we’ve gone to treating most patients with weekly high dose vitamin D, in addition to daily vitamin D and calcium, continual monitoring of vitamin D levels is important,” said Dr Crist. It “can prevent future fractures and improve healing of current fractures.”

A group of experts from EMAS, the European Menopause and Andropause Society, has prepared another report, this time on vitamin D supplements and the health of postmenopausal women. “We believe that many diseases can be aggravated by a chronic deficiency of vitamin D,” said Faustino R Pérez-López, researcher at the University of Zaragoza. This can be worse during the menopause as low levels of vitamin D in the blood are associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis, loss of motor co-ordination and bone fractures.

This work was carried out after the revelation that up to 70 percent of Europeans have low vitamin D levels, including people who live in the sunnier countries. Exposure to sunshine is vital, as this is our main source of vitamin D – it forms under the skin when we go out in sunlight.

The issue here is keeping a balance between getting enough sun, and not putting ourselves at risk of burning. There isn’t a hard and fast rule on how much time we can safely spend in the sun – people with fair skin burn more quickly and are at higher risk of skin cancer than those with darker skin – but around 10-15 minutes a day, in the sun, with no sun cream on, is the general advice. You can also get vitamin D from foods, including oily fish, eggs, fortified spreads and some fortified breakfast cereals, but you’re unlikely to get as much as you need just from food.

Among the groups that are at risk of vitamin D deficiency are people aged 65 and over, people who have little or no exposure to the sun, such as those who rarely or never go outside, and people of African, African-Caribbean and South Asian origin, whose bodies aren’t able to make as much vitamin D.

Why is vitamin D vital?

Vitamin D is important to maintain strong bones and is also involved in muscle function and maintaining a healthy immune system. Conditions associated with low levels of vitamin D include an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. On the plus side, there is increasing scientific evidence that getting enough vitamin D could cut your risk of developing bowel cancer, and perhaps breast cancer too.

If you are concerned that you might be running low on vitamin D, talk to your GP, and ask about having a blood test. If your levels are low, your GP can prescribe you vitamin D and calcium supplements. Getting enough – but not too much – summer sunshine is up to you.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.