How to make sure you get enough vitamin D during an Irish winter

The Irish climate does not provide enough vitamin D for many, writes Áilín Quinlan

Mother Nature gets most things right, but, observes leading nutritionist Gaye Godkin, leaving Vitamin D out of breast milk was a glaring omission.

One in eight Irish people suffers from vitamin D deficiency, yet most of us are unaware of the potential consequences of this lack, which can include everything from an increased risk of anxiety and depression and bone-softening in adults, to rickets in children.

Although a certain amount of vitamin D is to be found in foods such as lamb’s liver and oily fish such as mackerel (see panel), the primary source of this crucial nutrient is sunshine.

But, because Ireland lies between 51 and 53 degrees north of the equator, we don’t get nearly enough of those gloriously warm golden rays, says Godkin.

“The World Health organisation suggests that 20 minutes of arm and leg exposure a day to have the necessary vitamin D needed in the skin which is made in the skin from cholesterol,” she says.

“We don’t get that.”

Godkin explains that there are several potential consequences of vitamin D deficiency.

“It’s very important for bone health and muscle health — for muscle cells — and also for the brain.

“It’s important for the immune system! Vitamin D is also involved in the genetic expression in the immune system.

“If you lack vitamin D you may have faulty genetic expression, and certain auto-immune illnesses may be switched on, such as multiple sclerosis — and Ireland has very high rates of auto-immune illness.”

Research published by scientists in UCC last February revealed that one in eight Irish people has a vitamin D deficiency — around 500,000 people, or 12% of the population, have a vitamin D deficiency. The prevalence of vitamin D deficiency across Europe is 13%.

Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that up to 40% of people in the countries surveyed had vitamin D levels which were not sufficient to support good bone health, according to the report carried out by the UCC Centre for Nutrition Research.

The research, which was carried out on almost 56,000 people in 18 countries, warned that severe vitamin D deficiency causes rickets in children and osteomalacia, or softening of the bones, in adults. It may also increase the risk of other chronic non-bone related diseases.

Although a certain amount of vitamin D is available in some foods, says Godkin, she believes supplementation is necessary, and particularly so for babies.

“All babies in Ireland are to be supplemented from birth to one year of age and in the UK it’s recommended that it is birth to five years of age,” she says.

“Breast milk contains no vitamin, which is a big fault in nature and we have to make up for it. Both bottle-fed and breast-fed babies need vitamin D supplementation.”

Adults need supplementation - and clinical nutritionist Ruth Martin-Hetherington decided to do something about it.

Ruth Hetherington, creator of Miss Fit Skinny Tea and The D, a gel-based vitamin D capsule that can ward off the deficiency that can affect mental health.
Ruth Hetherington, creator of Miss Fit Skinny Tea and The D, a gel-based vitamin D capsule that can ward off the deficiency that can affect mental health.

Because she wasn’t happy with what was available on the market, last summer, she created her own gel-based vitamin D capsule.

“Vitamin D is not something we get enough of in Ireland,” she says. “There isn’t enough sunshine and a lot of people have mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.”

A deficiency in vitamin D can be linked to mental health issues, Ms Martin-Hetherington warns, adding that the vitamin is very important for overall health as well as healthy teeth and bones.

“You need vitamin D to absorb calcium. It’s important for your inflammatory responses — that is, the strength of your immune system in fighting diseases,” she says adding that she started work on her gel-based Vitamin D capsule last summer.

“For me, it’s about having a good vitamin D that is more absorbable and stronger than what is out there now.

“For vitamin D to be absorbed into the body, you need fat — it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, so we made it in cold-pressed olive oil which is put into a gel capsule.”

Known as The D, and produced by Miss Fit Skinny Tea, the supplement is available in pharmacies and health food shops.

How to make sure you get enough vitamin D during an Irish winter

Vitamin D The basics: Why You Need It

Your body requires vitamin D for the absorption of calcium, bone development, immune functioning, and alleviation of inflammation.

Vitamin D deficiency can lead to conditions such as rickets, a weakened immune system, increased cancer risk, and bone softening, or osteomalacia.

Vitamin D is oil soluble, which means that you need to eat fat to absorb it.

Where To Find It:

1. Oily fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna: Salmon in particular is one of the best sources of vitamin D, while tuna and mackerel also contain good amounts of it.

2. Milk and butter, especially fortified milk.

3. Free-range eggs.

4. Mushrooms. Portobello and shiitake mushrooms are considered good sources of vitamin D

5. Soy and soy products, many of which are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

6 Cod liver oil.

7. Cheese is also a strong source of vitamin D.


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