Vitamin D is essential for bone health because it helps the body to use calcium. It is actually produced as a hormone in the body when our skin is exposed to sunlight and occurs naturally in a few foods, including some fish, fish liver oils, egg yolks and fortified dairy and grains.
Research suggests that vitamin D could play a role in the prevention and treatment of a number of different conditions, including type 1 and type 2 diabetes, hypertension, glucose intolerance, and multiple sclerosis. Low blood levels of the vitamin have been associated cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment as we age and cancer.
Research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that those with the lowest vitamin D levels have more than double the risk of dying from heart disease and other causes over an eight-year period compared with those with the highest vitamin D levels.
Another study found an increased risk of heart attacks in those with low vitamin D levels.
So why are westerners becoming vitamin D deficient? The answers lie in our lifestyles, according to the research.
Following a rigid vegan dietMany of us are turning towards vegetarian and vegan diets. However, most of the natural sources of vitamin D are animal-based, including fish and fish oils, egg yolks, fortified milk, and beef liver.
If you follow a strict vegan diet it’s more likely that you won’t consume the recommended levels of vitamin D over time. If you follow a vegan diet, make sure to include in your diet a good number of vegan-friendly sources of vitamin D, such as mushrooms, fortified soya and almond milk, tofu and plant derived supplements.
Limited exposure to sunlightThe body makes vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight, yet many of us spend long hours indoors, whether at the office or at home. Those of us who live in northern latitudes are also less likely to be getting enough sunlight.
If you are fair skinned and sunbathing in a bathing suit at noon, you only need a few minutes without sunscreen. If you're already tanned or of Hispanic origin, you need around 15 to 20 minutes. Black skin may require six times the sun exposure to make the same vitamin D levels as a very fair-skinned person.