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feature article Finding the Light Indoor living can be bad for our health, says Diana Wright

We are now in the depths of winter. The nights are long and dark and the days short and cold. Not surprisingly, the temptation is to stay inside our cosy homes and to drive to work rather than walk. For some, this has become a year-round lifestyle – but how many of us realise that all this indoor living is hazardous to our health? It appears that we in the western

world are becoming more deficient in vitamin D, commonly known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’. This matters because deficiency impairs the absorption of dietary calcium and phosphorous, putting us at risk of potentially serious bone problems as well as impacting on other important health issues. According to Department of Health

figures published in 2012, up to a quarter of the UK population now have low levels of vitamin D in their blood. It also revealed that, contrary to NICE and World Health Organisation guidelines, most pregnant or breast-feeding women don’t take vitamin D supplements. Yet supplementation is important,

not just for the mother, but to build up adequate foetal stores for early infancy: poor bone growth and development commonly leads to rickets in children and there has been a massive four-fold increase in hospital admissions for rickets in the last 15 years. More research is needed on the

true extent of vitamin D deficiency in the UK but some groups are more at risk than others: in addition to children and pregnant women, these include older people who may spend long periods inside, women who cover up for cultural reasons, and the darker-skinned. Recently, I even heard of an active man in his 20s who developed rickets while working in a sports centre: he spent seven days a week inside! New research indicates that

vitamin D deficiency may also be linked to an increased risk of cancer and the development of autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes and depression;

form of D3 unless under the advice of a professional such as a doctor or nutritional therapist. Vitamin D deficiency may be a

growing problem but the good news is that it’s easy to do something about it. Just go for a walk, take a supplement during the winter if necessary, and eat something like sardines on toast for lunch today. That way, you will protect your brain, improve your energy levels, maintain bone strength and keep happy and healthy. 

Just one salmon fillet delivers more than enough vitamin D for the day.

indeed, it’s been proved that the lower a person’s vitamin D status , the more severe their depression. Interestingly, Alzheimer’s and

dementia are also more common in people who are vitamin D deficient. While it’s not yet known whether low levels actually cause these brain conditions, or whether vitamin D can help to prevent, treat or delay dementia, two facts remain clear: we need enough vitamin D for optimal health, and it may also prevent or postpone certain diseases.

So how do we get

Vitamin D? Fortunately, we can absorb the most active form, vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), simply by making sure our skin is exposed to outdoor daylight for as little as 10 minutes a day without a sunscreen. However, in winter the amount of UVB light at northern latitudes decreases dramatically so we need to obtain vitamin D through our diet: the Government-recommended level is 400 iu (10 mcg) daily, although US guidelines are twice as high. Good sources of vitamin D include

green vegetables (especially kale, spinach and broccoli), mushrooms and yeast; it’s also sometimes added to foods such as cereals, milk and spreads. Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel is another excellent source with a single


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serving offering between 4 and 11 mcg; it's also great for brain health. Make sure, though, that you preserve the vitamin content by only steaming or baking. While it’s difficult to eat too much

vitamin D, it is easy to over-supplement and it can be toxic at high amounts (100 mcg). If you want to supplement, the advice is to first check that you need it by having a blood test, and not to exceed 400 iu (10 mcg) daily in the

Further information ∫ The author is a nutritional therapist based in Amersham and can be contacted via the Orchard Clinic or She also offers talks for groups and has spoken on key issues ranging from autism to eating disorders at UK and international conferences.

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