Great news, Australia! We’re seeing deadly skin cancer rates drop amongst young Aussies, indicating that there’s an increase in awareness of how important sun safety really is[i]. That’s truly something to celebrate. However, there can be another result of effective slip-slop-slap-seek-sliding, and that is a reduction in our exposure to Vitamin D. In fact, around one in four Aussies are believed to have a Vitamin D deficiencyiii. Let’s take a look at why we need Vitamin D; what happens if we don’t have enough; and how to supplement your levels safely.
Why do we need Vitamin D?
We need Vitamin D for effective calcium absorption, which is crucial in keeping our bones and muscles strong and healthy[ii]. Our main source for this important vitamin is through exposure to UVB rays from the sun, although it can also be sourced through some foods and supplementsii.
What impact can a Vitamin D deficiency have?
A severe deficiency could potentially have significant effects on wellbeing. Low levels of Vitamin D have been linked to the followingii:
- Rickets (soft bones) in children
- Asthma in children
- Osteoporosis, plus broken and fractured bones for those over 50
- Cardiovascular disease
- Cognitive impairment for older adults
- Illnesses such as bowel cancer, infections and auto-immune diseases[iii].
Who’s most at risk?
While anyone could be Vitamin D deficient, there are some people who tend to be more at risk than others. These include:
- Those who stay indoors or cover their skin most of the time
- People with naturally dark skin
- People who are obese
- Those with health conditions that affect their ability to absorb Vitamin D
- Those taking medication that breaks down Vitamin D
- Babies born to Vitamin D deficient mums
- Even your location can affect your Vitamin D levels: for example, Tasmanians are at a higher risk of being Vitamin D deficient[iv] due to lower sun exposure.
What are the signs of Vitamin D deficiency?
People don’t necessarily experience any Vitamin D deficiency symptoms. If you are in one of the risk groups or feel that you may be low in Vitamin D, it’s worth speaking with your doctor about a test before you begin to take supplements or increase your sun exposure.
How to get Vitamin D safely
Unfortunately it’s not easy to get enough Vitamin D from our food alone, but small amounts of it can be found in eggs, fatty fish, some milk products and liverii. If you have a deficiency, your doctor may also recommend that you take Vitamin D tablets or to increase your sun exposure by short increments.
If it feels as though the sun can both harm us and sustain us – well, that’s because it’s true! The key is to enjoy the great outdoors in a healthy way, but to also limit sunburns that can increase the risk of skin cancer. As with many things in life, the key is balance.
One way to try to achieve healthy Vitamin D levels without significantly increasing your risk of damage from the sun is to expose forearms and face (or an equivalent amount of other skin) to the sun for 10-15mins when the sun is low in the sky - ie. mornings and later afternoons. This, of course, will vary with the times of the year and your skin type (darker skin requires more sunlight to produce vitamin D). Also note that UV levels at these times may also vary with your geographic location within Australia.
But it is a safe way to start accruing vitamin D and may be enough to ensure adequate levels. You can always vary your exposure if vitamin D levels have not reached target.
Why not accompany that exposure with a little exercise and add to your health benefits?
[i] Australia's skin cancer rate declines: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-03/skin-cancer-rates-fall-for-young-australians-researchers-say/5364648
[ii] Vitamin D Deficiency: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/vitamin-d-deficiency
[iv] New vitamin D guidelines for Tasmanians released: http://www.cancertas.org.au/new-vitamin-d-guidelines-tasmanians-released/