Vitamin D: What is it and why you need it

Published April 13, 2021

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Children eat ice cream outside with mother and dog

Vitamin D is important for many aspects of health including bone and muscle health. It’s unique from other vitamins because it cannot be obtained solely from food and is naturally produced in the skin through adequate exposure to UV radiation from the sun.

Unfortunately, even in this sun-drenched country, it’s estimated that up to 1 in 3 Australian adults have a vitamin D deficiency, which can have significant health effects.

Vitamin D Benefits

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is essential to help you maintain strong bones and muscles. Specific benefits of Vitamin D include:

Bone health and osteoporosis Vitamin D is very important for bone health. It’s essential for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, which are vital for the normal mineralization of bone. Maintaining adequate vitamin D throughout life can help increase and maintain optimal bone density and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis.

Muscle health Vitamin D maintains muscle strength and helps our muscles function efficiently. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to muscle weakness and pain.

Immune health Vitamin D helps maintain a healthy immune system. There have been many studies linking lower vitamin D status with increased infection. One such study of nearly 19,000 participants found that individuals with lower vitamin D levels (<30 ng/ml) had a higher likelihood of reporting a recent upper respiratory tract infection compared to individuals with adequate vitamin D levels.

Overall health Vitamin D is required for general cellular function in all cells of the body.

Vitamin D in winter

A person’s vitamin D status can be influenced by the season. Most of us can maintain adequate vitamin D through incidental sun exposure with recommendations that people with moderately fair skin to expose their arms or equivalent size body area to the sun for 5–10 minutes outside of peak UV period on most days. When the UV index is above 3 (which it usually is in summer) we can spend just a few minutes outside most days of the week to achieve adequate vitamin D levels. However, when the UV index falls below 3, such as late autumn and during winter in some southern parts of Australia, you will need to spend time outdoors with your skin exposed during the middle of the day. It is suggested that you can boost vitamin D levels by going for a brisk walk or gardening.

Vitamin D foods such as fish, eggs and fortified milk may also add to the body’s daily intake. Infant formula is also fortified with vitamin D.

How can I get my daily dose of vitamin D without getting sunburnt?

While getting out and enjoying the sunshine is an essential part of helping to ensure you get your daily dose of vitamin D, some days spent in the sun will inevitably lead to sunburn. It is vital to cover up with sunscreen and protective clothing when possible, but when the occasional part is missed or you didn’t reapply sunscreen quickly enough, you will need to deal with the resulting burn as quickly as possible.

Start by drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated. A burn on the skin pulls moisture from the body to the surface to deal with any damage, which means your hydration levels can drop depending on the surface area and severity of the sunburn. Many people forget about this and focus on treating the burn from the outside in, but this step will help your entire system deal with the whole condition, rather than just the layer that is ‘skin-deep’.

Moisturiser is essential for reducing any pain or damage from your time in the sun. Avoid scrubbing, picking or pulling at the burn and opt for cool showers before applying moisturiser generously. Some people believe a product containing vitamin C or vitamin E may help prevent long-term damage to the skin, and many will choose aloe vera as a moisturiser due to the cooling sensation it offers.

If you often have to cover up to prevent or minimise sunburn you might want to look at a vitamin D supplement or double check your multivitamin to ensure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals your body needs.

Why take a vitamin D supplement

Most people don’t need vitamin D supplements. However, those who may require it include those who stay mostly indoors, have naturally darker skin, cover their body for cultural or medical reasons or are a baby of a mother who is vitamin D insufficient.

If you are at risk of vitamin D insufficiency, a vitamin D supplement may be beneficial. Please speak to your GP first to determine if a vitamin D supplement is required.

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