The vitamin D conundrum

Men's health

Posted on 22/01/20

Vitamin D is actually quite a contested subject matter with, often, conflicting views.

Who better than me – an unqualified, non-medically-trained, neanderthal – to resolve the dispute?

Exactly what I thought. So, let’s go…

What’s the point of it?

Everybody needs vitamin D.

It is believed to be good for us although medical research is still ongoing to fully understand the link between vitamin D and disease prevention. 

That being said, there is solid evidence that it helps to keep bones healthy. It has also been suggested that vitamin D may help to prevent serious diseases such as cancer, various forms of arthritis and autoimmune diseases. 

A lack of this vitamin may cause health issues in some people. 

In that case, how do I get me some vitamin D?

Two sources.

Diet and……wait for it……sunlight. 

Sunlight with sufficient amounts of UVB light helps the body to produce or ‘synthesise’ vitamin D in the skin.

Some foods contain vitamin D but nothing quite like the dosage from a hit of sun.

Sunlight is the main source within people.

So, what’s the problem?

Sunlight causes cancer.

Oh. Good point.

Well how about this? Why don’t I just bask in the sun but wear sun protection?

A solid question but until recently, sun creams were thought to create a barrier from sunlight that prevent vitamin D production. Nothing is ever straight forward.

OK. Well why don’t I just eat my bodyweight in vitamin D then?

The dosages found naturally in food are quite small.

In addition, vitamin D isn’t that common in foods. It is most prevalent in oily fish (salmon, herring, mackerel) and fortified foods such as margarines, eggs, mushrooms and meat.

There is also the option of supplements or tablets but that’s an entirely different minefield that I don’t want to go into. 

In the UK, there is an organisation called the Scientific Advisory Council on Nutrition. They advise the British government and recently revised the recommended daily dose for people above 4 years old. They believe there is just about enough evidence to suggest we’re better off having a certain level of vitamin D flowing around our blood stream. To achieve that base level, they think we need to intake 10 micrograms per day.

As an example, that’s five eggs per day. Or one salmon fillet per day. Every day.

Unfortunately, they could not say what the alternative would be in terms of minutes spent in the sun if we chose to get our dosage from sunlight instead. That would be too simple.

In fairness, the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin when exposed to sunlight depends on multiple factors like your personal skin type, where you are, the time of day, the weather conditions and so on.

The general rule of thumb I have read and heard from medics and researchers is 15 minutes per day is more than adequate. 

Earlier, did you say the science community may have changed its mind?!

Well spotted! Yes I did.

As I said earlier, sunlight with sufficient amounts of UVB light helps the body to produce or ‘synthesise’ vitamin D in the skin.

Until recently, there were concerns within the health community that sunscreen may be contributing to vitamin D deficiency. The logic being that sunscreen blocks UVB light so vitamin D synthesis in the skin could not take place.

This long-held hypothesis appears to have been quashed recently. Three separate studies by experts from London and Australia were published in the British Journal of Dermatology in May 2019.

The leader of one of the studies was Professor Antony Young from Kings College London. In response to the study, he confirmed that ‘Sunlight is the main source of vitamin D.

‘Sunscreens can prevent sunburn and skin cancer, but there has been a lot of uncertainty about the effects of sunscreens on Vitamin D.

‘Our study, during a week of perfect weather in Tenerife, showed that sunscreens, even when used optimally to prevent sunburn, allowed excellent vitamin D synthesis.’

In a nutshell, the Professor and his team measured vitamin D levels in people’s blood both before and after sun exposure in Tenerife. They had a control group who had very limited sun exposure (in Poland). Different sunscreen products were applied, in different quantities, to the Tenerife group. Despite the application of sunscreen, there was a ‘highly significant’ improvement in vitamin D levels after sun exposure in this group.

Holly Barber from the British Association of Dermatologists said that ‘The risk of vitamin D deficiency from sunscreen has been found to be low, and therefore is unlikely to outweigh the benefits of sunscreen for skin cancer prevention.’

Can you please just tell me what to do?

Skin cancer is a serious risk for men. It is also something that you can take reasonable efforts to try and prevent (relative to other forms of cancer).

Vitamin D deficiency is often the stick that is used to beat those who endorse sunscreen as an everyday necessity.

Evidence from new research confirms that sunscreen does not prevent the synthesis of vitamin D by blocking out the sun’s ultraviolet light.

So, now you can have the best of both worlds: skin health, protection and vitamin D synthesis. On top of this, you can supplement vitamin D through diet.

What is totally clear is that sitting in the sun – unprotected – to try and boost vitamin D in your bloodstream is verging on ridiculous.

Stay safe. Wear sun protection. And then go outside and do what you love.

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