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Article - 25 May 2011

Vitamin D deficiency. Does D stand for 'die early'?

Vitamin D is good for strong bones and teeth, right? And anyway you get it from the sun so what is there to think about? Well what if I said that not only does new evidence suggest that low vitamin D status is linked to a whole raft of very serious health issues such as increased rates of multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, immune system disfunction, rheumatoid arthritis and bowel disease to name but a few, but it is also quite likely that you are not getting enough.

"Vitamin D deficiency is endemic in the general population. This can now be linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid artritis and certain types of cancer". (Med Sci Sports Exerc 2011)

First of all, what is vitamin D? For one, it is more like a hormone  than a vitamin in that it acts as a chemical messenger and exerts a powerful effect on cells. There are two types - D2 and D3. D3 is the most active  and is also the one that is produced in our bodies through exposure to sunlight, or more precisely to UVB rays. We are also able to get it from certain foods such as oily fish, liver, eggs,  milk - the usual suspects. So far, so boring I hear you say. Well listen up, this is the problem:

Even if you live in the South of France, are partial to the sunbed and love your sardines, it is likely, certainly during the winter months, that you are still not getting the amount of vitamin D that you actually need to help fend off the myriad of health issues previously mentioned.  For athletes this deficiency has also been shown to directly influence the frequency of common colds and flu - not great when trying to progressively build fitness.  I am not usually one for scaremongery, but be afraid. This is serious. Government guidelines must be on top of this though, right? Wrong. Follow those - stay out of the sun between 11am-3pm and get 200IU of vitamin D daily -  and, according to the latest evidence you will certainly, no doubt about it, be deficient. The reason being is that the best way to get what you need  is from the sun but to do that you need to live somewhere where the winter latitude is less than 37 degrees north or south. To give you an idea, Rome is on a latitude of 42 degrees and London 52 degrees. Anyone want to move to Hawaii with me? (21degrees).  Ok fine, but what about the risk of skin cancer you say? As with anything, moderation should prevail. Do not get burnt but regular sun exposure is certainly going to be beneficial and this is a sentiment backed up by US researchers who argue that the improved vitamin D status that would accompany increased sun exposure would decrease overall mortality rates and eclipse those from skin cancer by a factor of 12.
"Athletes living at distances away from the equator need supplemental vitamin D during the winter. Maintaining sufficient vitamin D status may reduce the risk of common infectious illness which can negatively impact athletic training and performance".(Med Sci Sports Exerc 2011)

So how much do we need? UK goverment guidelines suggest 200IU/day. US guidelines have just been moved to 600 IU/day. Recent research suggests a figure of 1500 IU/day might be more realistic! As athletes this becomes even more important because of the link to overuse injuries and stress fractures.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that vitamin D is much more important than we ever knew.  So just make sure you are getting enough. Get out in the sun, eat the right food and live somewhere hot and sunny. Failing that get down the shops and buy some pills. If you don't it might just killl you.

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