Vitamin D helps us feel happy, healthy – and, crucially, could protect us from respiratory problems. Here’s how to top up during lockdown
Is there anything more frustrating during the present lockdown than looking out of the window at the glorious springtime sunlight ? Knowing you can’t go out to see friends or eat lunch in the park makes us all pretty glum; and to make matters worse, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has officially confirmed that sunbathing is against the Government’s guidance.
But the situation is more than just a bit irritating. Not getting enough sunlight can be detrimental to your health, because our bodies synthesise vitamin D from the sun’s rays through the skin. According to data from the NHS, people living in Britain simply don’t get enough vitamin D – which our bodies synthesise from sunlight – from October to March. As a result, one in five of us suffer from low vitamin D.
Right now, we should be heading into the months where vitamin D is abundant – a time to top up on the feeling of sun on skin. But as you know, this probably isn’t the case: we’re locked down and largely inside. If you don’t have access to a garden or even a balcony, it’s doubly hard to get your hit.
Why does it matter? In short, because the vitamin is used by the body to absorb calcium and aid bone growth. A shortage is linked to rickets, various cancers, heart disease, and weight gain.
Research has also linked high levels of vitamin D to a healthy immune system, leading some scientists and doctors to question whether a lack of vitamin D might make people more susceptible to respiratory conditions such as coronavirus. The vitamin is known to have both anti-inflammatory and immuno-regulatory properties, as well as boosting T-Cells and macrophages in the immune system.
Low vitamin D levels have also been linked to respiratory conditions including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and tuberculosis, as well as decreased overall lung function. So while, as yet, there are no studies explicitly linking Covid-19 and vitamin D, there are various adjacent reasons to believe it might help.
The condition we most commonly associate with vitamin D deficiency is, of course, depression.
On a scientific level, the link between vitamin D and happiness is observed without being entirely explained. Numerous studies have shown that people with a lack of vitamin D are more likely to be depressed, but we’re only starting to join the dots as to why this may be. Research is focusing on the parts of the brain that are linked to depression, with vitamin D believed to play a role in the function of chemicals monoamines. Serotonin, sometimes referred to as the ‘happy chemical’ is an example of a monoamine.
Whatever the science, a lack of sunlight certainly seems to leave people feeling blue. Mexican beer brand Sol surveyed 2,000 British adults last year and found that 56pc of us say that when the days draw in, we feel lower in energy; and 49pc say they feel actively sad. In contrast, 85pc associate summer and its accompanying sunlight with happiness – but that’s not much good if you can’t get out and enjoy it, is it?
Still, it goes without saying that in these dark and stressful times, we should all be doing our utmost to get as much sunlight as we can, while still obeying all the government’s rules and restrictions. Here’s what you can do to boost the amount of vitamin D you get until sunbathing is back on the menu…
1. Soak up every last ray
The first and easiest way is to simply spend more time in direct sunlight (the exact amount of time you need to spend in the sun varies per person as factors such as skin colour and exposure can alter it, but the average person needs about 15-30 minutes per day).
Of course, current rules mean that you can’t go and lounge in the sun all day long, but remember that we are allowed out to exercise by walking or running, so make the most of that opportunity. You’ll want to maximise the amount of sunlight directly onto your skin so if it’s warm enough, wear t-shirts and shorts when you go out.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to a garden or balcony, make the most of it and try to spend a little time outside. You’ll catch the most rays between 11am and 3pm so why not have a daily lunch break in your garden? The fresh air is good for you too.
If you spot sunbeams coming through your window, then fling them open. Most standard glass filters out the UVB rays which make the body start to produce vitamin D, so sitting by a closed window won’t help you get vitamin D.
2. Eat your vitamin D
If you’re in a high risk group and thus going outdoors is more worrisome, then you might wish to try getting vitamin D through your diet. Wild salmon, tuna, mackerel, milk, some cereals, mushrooms, and eggs all contain vitamin D2, which our body can then use.
Obviously the amount of vitamin D we need varies between people, but 200g of wild salmon per day contains enough more than enough for the average person in theory. The best part is that vitamin D can be stored, so any excess vitamin D you take in will be used by the body on days when you don’t get enough.
But that “in theory” is important, because it is worth noting, however, that the body finds it much more difficult to synthesise vitamin D from food than from sunlight, which remains the ‘purest’ source of the good stuff.
3. Try a lamp (or maybe don’t…)
A 2017 study from the Boston School of Medicine found that some UV LED lamps, like those found on sunbeds in tanning salons, are actually more effective at causing the body to synthesise vitamin D than the sun itself. While tanning salons are largely considered non-essential businesses and have been forced to close, those with at-home sunbeds should beware. Most medical advice, including the NHS’s, doesn’t recommend using sunbeds or sun lamps as a way to get more vitamin D because UV light is linked to a heightened risk of skin cancer.
And then there’s light therapy boxes – also known as SAD lamps, used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. These have been engineered not to include UV light, so they won’t prompt the body into vitamin D synthesis because it needs that UV for the process to work. What they might do, however, is boost your mood by realigning your circadian rhythm and/or prompting your body to make serotonin (although their efficacy remains open to debate).
4. Take a supplement
Advice from the NHS is that all adults and child over the age of one should take a 10 microgram vitamin D3 supplement every day, especially during autumn and winter (and presumably during lockdown too.)
This is even more important for people with dark skin who live in countries as far north as the UK as they may not get enough vitamin D from sunlight even in the summer. It has not gone unnoticed by the British Medical Association that the first ten doctors to have died from Covid-19 were from BAME communities, leading some to suggest that the association between vitamin D and Covid-19’s mortality rate might be related.