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D-robe this winter for vitamin D

Tuesday 21 May, 2013 by Bethany

As the darker, colder winter weather creeps in, it has never become more important for Australians to start thinking about their vitamin D intake.

Our instinct during the fresher seasons is to wrap up and stay indoors, but SunSmart is encouraging Victorians to get out and "bare all" in an effort to boost vitamin D levels.

Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays is the most important source of vitamin D. Having enjoyed a bumper Victorian summer, many people might think they are well stocked with the sunshine vitamin as they head into the darker months. However, vitamin D only stays in our bodies for 30 to 60 days, making it essential that we make an effort to get some sun during the winter months.

Vitamin D is important for bone and muscle health and general wellbeing. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to osteoporosis or osteomalacia (softening of the bones). Vitamin D deficiencies have also been linked to other health issues such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes, but the jury is still out in terms of conclusive evidence. There is still a lot more to learn about the true impact of vitamin D.

But there are some easy ways to help keep your vitamin D levels buoyant this winter. During summer, Victorians are advised to be extra cautious during the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense. But in the winter, UV levels rarely make it above 3, even in the middle of the day, and experts actually encourage Victorians to get out and about during these peak times and embrace winter with open and bare arms.

If you can, head outside at about midday with your hands and arms exposed, for about 20 minutes a day (that's 2 to 3 hours spread over a week). People with darker skin will need longer – about 3–6 times that amount of time per day for vitamin D. Sun protection is not required unless near highly reflective surfaces such as snow, outdoors for extended periods or the UV index reaches three and above. So feel free to ditch the SPF and hang the sunhat on its hook for a rest!

But for those at risk of low vitamin D, sun exposure may not be enough. If you fall in to one of the below categories, you should speak to your GP. Levels can be tested with a simple blood test and options such as supplements can be discussed depending on your individual circumstances.

  • Institutionalised elderly (in hostels, nursing homes, residential aged care)
  • People who cover their skin (for cultural or religious reasons)
  • People with naturally dark skin. They may take up to six times longer than those with pale skin to generate the same amount of vitamin D
  • Indoor or night shift workers
  • Those with chronic diseases (of the gastrointestinal tract, inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease) where there is poor absorption of vitamin D
  • Skin cancer patients
  • People on medications that make them more sensitive to UV light, such as stem cell transplant patients
  • Breastfed babies. Breast milk is the main source of vitamin D for babies and those at risk are babies of darker-skinned mothers or mothers who veil themselves for cultural reasons. 

To help monitor sun exposure for vitamin D, SunSmart has developed a vitamin D tracker tool that allows users to find out if they are getting enough sun to help with vitamin D levels. The tracker is available on the free SunSmart app for smartphones and at sunsmart.com.au.

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