In springs and summers, we get plenty of sun that is, in tandem with a healthy diet, sufficient to boost vitamin D production in your skin but in autumn and winter, when the sunshine is scarce, you should take daily supplements containing 10 microgram (mcg) of vitamin D. This is what the Department of Health, UK, i.e., Public Health England (PHE) recommends.

The recommendation came after the PHE asked the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to review and update vitamin D reference values for the UK population. The committee found evidence that vitamin D is indeed linked with bone health in children and adults and a deficiency of it, say a level below 25 nmol/L, can lead to poor musculoskeletal health and rickets i.e., a skeletal disorder characterized by bone deformity that occurs due to lack of vitamin D, calcium and phosphate. The recommendations about daily vitamin D intake in autumn and winters were recently published in BMJ.

Sun is rare in the UK, particularly in the autumn and winter i.e., from October until the end of March. It may show up off and on but is certainly not strong enough to produce vitamin D in your body. This is why you need to take vitamin D supplements to make up for the lack of essential vitamin in your body. Recognizing the importance of sunshine vitamin, Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at Public Health England, said, “A healthy, balanced diet and short bursts of sunshine will mean most people get all the vitamin D they need in spring and summer. However, everyone will need to consider taking a supplement in the autumn and winter if they don’t eat enough foods that naturally contain vitamin D or are fortified with it.”

He added, “Those who don’t get out in the sun or always cover their skin when they do should take a vitamin D supplement throughout the year.”

Vitamin D and calcium are essential for bone health. The vitamin helps your body absorb calcium and phosphate. In the absence of vitamin D, your body cannot utilize the essential minerals and is at an increased risk of musculoskeletal diseases. Vitamin D is also a mood stabilizer and prevents various mental and hormonal disorders including depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Experts believe vitamin D boosts immune system, improves asthma control and also prevents certain forms of cancer.

Vitamin D is found naturally in a number of foods such as tuna, mackerel, salmon, red meat, cod liver oil, liver and egg yolks. Fortified foods such as dairy products, soy milk and breakfast cereals also contain vitamin D. However, the richest source of vitamin D is sun. This is why it is called the sunshine vitamin. According to the National Institute of Health, recommended daily intake of calcium and vitamin D varies with age. For children, adolescent and adults, the daily intake should be 600 mg. The elderly, having fragile bones that increase their risk of bone fracture and falls, should take 800 mg of vitamin D daily.

The new guidelines endorse the daily recommended intake but supplement the recommendations by suggesting that vitamin D supplements should be taken in months when sun is scarce. Following the are new recommendations by PHE.

  • Children younger than one year of age should be given 8.5-10.0 mcg of vitamin D. The supplements, though, should be skipped in babies consuming more than 500 ml of infant formula per day.
  • Children over age one and all adults of any age should take daily supplements containing 10 mcg of vitamin D in autumn and winter.
  • All people should increase intake of food in autumn and winter that naturally contains vitamin D or is fortified with it.
  • People with little or no exposure to sun throughout the year must take supplements all year long to maintain normal vitamin D level in the body.
  • People who have a healthy diet and get sufficient sun in spring and summer do not need vitamin D supplements.
  • People with dark skin, including South Asian, African and African Caribbean should consider taking supplements all year long since they are at a heightened risk of vitamin D deficiency.

There was a time when a traditional daily spoon of cod liver oil and regular exposure to sunlight would meet the daily requirement but cod liver oil allergies and too many warnings about sunlight causing skin cancer have not only scared people but has also mounted vitamin D deficiency among them. The deficiency is now considered a global epidemic which is a grave concern, particularly in older demographic because as we age our skin loses its efficiency to convert sunlight into vitamin D. Nonetheless, research has proven that regular supplementation with vitamin D can improve and normalize serum level and reduce the risk of calcium malabsorption, osteoporosis and hip fractures in the susceptible population.