Christine Webber

The other day, when I was out walking, the sun was shining, and I was delighted to feel a new warmth in the air.

My excitement was short-lived though, because it rained later and then the temperature took a dive again, but it was a tonic for a while. And that’s what sunshine is, isn’t it? A reliable tonic which is guaranteed to brighten our mood and help us feel livelier and healthier. 

This is the stage of year when I think most of us feel grateful for better weather as the wind drops, there is more daylight, and we can discard some of our heavier clothing.

It’s also much fresher, and more fragrant than later in the summer when, nowadays, we’re often subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures which are no fun at all. So, I always think of spring and early summer as the best period in which to focus on being outside and getting as much Vitamin D – the “sunshine vitamin” – as possible.   

I became interested in Vitamin D about 10 years ago when I chaired a conference on the topic at the King’s Fund in London.

I was amazed when specialist after specialist reported how they believed a lack of the vitamin was at least partially responsible for the illnesses of their patients. Among their number were paediatricians, respiratory physicians and consultants in multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, and diabetes.

It was a revelation to me that so many conditions appear to be exacerbated by insufficient levels of Vitamin D, not just the well-known ones such as osteoporosis and rickets.  

But quite apart from what such a deficiency might lead to in terms of terminal or chronic illness, it’s now commonly believed by scientists that low levels of Vitamin D are also responsible for more general symptoms which, though not life-threatening, prevent us from feeling fully well.

These include low mood, a tendency to become ill frequently with colds and other viruses, muscle weakness, bone pain, poor sleep and tiredness. 
Now, there is often disagreement about how much Vitamin D we all need and whether or not we should take supplements in the winter and what the dose should be. I’m not going to get into that today because it’s so complex, and I am no expert on the answers. 

But I thought it would be a good moment to focus on the fact that sunlight is nature’s way of providing us with enough ‘D’, and how most of us will feel better if we boost our intake whenever we can. 

Of course, GPs and dermatologists are often concerned that we may get too much sun and end up by damaging the skin, which is not only unsightly but dangerous. However, there are ways of absorbing enough of the sun’s rays and boosting Vitamin D safely and sensibly and in small doses. 

Many experts believe that if we expose part of our body to the sun for just 15 to 20 minutes a day from April to October, we will achieve healthy levels of Vitamin D.

However, to be safe, if you’re very fair skinned, I would definitely recommend you do what I do, which is to wear a hat, and put sun block on your cheeks, chin and nose.

These areas are very vulnerable. People with darker skins tend to need more exposure to sun if they are to build up Vitamin D so probably don’t need to adopt such measures. 

If you do cover your face and head, then you can still expose more robust parts of the body such as your arms and legs. This should increase your levels. 

It’s important for us all to take on board that when we spend the majority of our time indoors, such as in the winter months, we are likely to suffer losses in Vitamin D.   

Various major organisations have recognised this in recent years. One of those is the Royal Ballet who became increasingly concerned that dancers might be likely to suffer more injuries than necessary, because they spend all day, every day, in indoor studios, and never see the sun.

So, they embarked on a project in collaboration with the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital to improve the health of the company. And as a result, they monitor their dancers on a regular basis to check they have sufficient Vitamin D. And they encourage them to sit out on the terrace daily, in good weather, for up to 20 minutes. 

This strategy has been carefully thought out and researched and if it’s beneficial for those wonderful artists, I think it’s safe to assume it will help us too.   

Is there anything else we can do? Well, certain foods increase Vitamin D in the body, and they include mushrooms, oily fish and egg yolks. You can also look out for foodstuffs which are fortified with Vitamin D, such as some cereals. 

Vitamin D is often described as the “feel good” vitamin, so it makes sense for us all to take responsibility for getting enough.