As you bask in the unseasonal sunshine, it might feel as though spring has arrived early.
But, while warmth is creeping back into the sun’s light, there’s one very important thing missing: sufficient UVB rays to make vitamin D.
We get this nutrient primarily from exposure to sunshine, and a lack of it can make you tired, miserable and achy. Unsurprisingly, in Britain, as many as a quarter of us are low in vitamin D. The problem is especially bad in winter, when not only is there less sunshine, but the rays that are emitted are so weak they won’t help your body produce the nutrient.
‘To make vitamin D, you have to expose unprotected skin to UVB light,’ says Professor Ann Webb, from the Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Manchester.
Alice Smellie spoke to women who’ve experienced misery due to a lack of sunshine, Katy Georgiou, 35, (pictured) from London struggled to get out of bed due to low levels of vitamin D
‘But from October to March, the sun [in Britain] is so low in the sky that most of the UVB rays get lost in the atmosphere. So, even if you’re in the sun, you won’t get the UVB light you need to make vitamin D.’
As a result, experts say we may suffer poor immunity, aches and pains, low mood and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Long-term, low vitamin D is bad for your bones, muscles and teeth and can raise your chance of osteoporosis.
Many factors can increase your chance of deficiency, including the colour of your skin. The pigment melanin, which makes our skin darker, helps shield us from the sun. The more melanin you have, the harder it is for your body to produce vitamin D from sunshine.
While you can get some vitamin D from food — especially oily fish and eggs — dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton says most people get less than 10 per cent of their vitamin D this way.
And if we slather on sunscreen whenever we go out, it prevents UVB rays from reaching our skin.
So how do you beat the vitamin D blues? We spoke to women feeling miserable after a lack of sunshine . . .
I COULD BARELY GET MYSELF OUT OF BED
Katy Georgiou, 35, a counsellor, lives in London. Two years ago, she found out that her level of vitamin D was 39 nmol/L (less than 50 nmol/L is insufficient and under 25 nmol/L is deficient).
Katy says: For six months, I could barely drag myself out of bed, and moving was painful. For the first couple of hours each day, I’d be in a daze.
I’m very healthy, but I was working flat-out, so I was barely getting any sun.
I went to the doctor, who took one look at me and said: ‘I think you have low vitamin D.’
Katy (pictured) says taking a very high-dose of vitamin D for two weeks, before moving onto lower supplements felt like emerging from a fog
She turned out to be spot on. I was incredibly relieved — I had been terrified that something was seriously wrong.
I was prescribed very high-dose vitamin D for two weeks, then moved onto lower supplements.
Within weeks, it was like emerging from a fog I hadn’t realised was suffocating me.
My family are from Cyprus. I am pale for a Greek Cypriot, but I have olive skin, so it makes sense that I couldn’t make vitamin D from a small amount of sun!
Dietitian Carrie Ruxton says: Katy should aim to expose her face and her arms to the sun for 15 to 20 minutes daily from April to September.
She will need supplements in winter. Choose one that says ‘D3’ on the label, as this is the form our bodies can use most easily.
HOWEVER MUCH I SLEPT, I FELT TIRED
Uchenna Okoye, 49, a dentist, lives in London with her husband Chidi, also 49, and two-year-old daughter. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with vitamin D levels of 18 nmol/L.
Uchenna says: I’ve never spent much time in the sun. I visit family in Nigeria a few times a year, but go straight from an air-conditioned house to the car because of the heat.
In this country, it’s rarely warm enough for me to do more than roll up my sleeves. The only bit of my body regularly in sunlight is my face, and I always wear a high SPF to protect against ageing.
Uchenna Okoye, 49, (pictured) from London who constantly felt tired, discovered her low levels of vitamin D after her husband who is a doctor advised her to get tested
I now suspect my vitamin D has been low for years. However much I slept, I was always tired.
Finally, my husband, who is a doctor, suggested that I have my vitamin D tested. My doctor was staggered by my low result. It’s incredible I was still functioning, but you get on with it, don’t you? I was given high supplements, which I am still taking. Two weeks later, I was like a woman reborn.
Now, when I’m in warm weather, I expose my skin unprotected for at least half-an-hour. But it has to be thoroughly tropical for me to sunbathe, so I’m also taking Healthspan Super Strength Vitamin D3, which is 25 micrograms (ug). If I stop, I notice a difference within days.
Dr Ruxton says: Uchenna lived for some time with critically low vitamin D, so I would be concerned about her bone density — calcium can’t absorb into bones without vitamin D. I’d suggest a DEXA scan to check this.
Although we have peak bone mass at the age of 30, it’s never too late to regain some by doing weight-bearing exercise.
A FEAR OF CANCER KEPT ME OUT OF SUN
Emma Mapp, 45, runs an accessory company, Mapp Of London, and lives with her partner Stuart in London. As of last year, her vitamin D level was 24 nmol/L.
Emma says: I’ve lived in the UK for 20 years, but was brought up in South Africa. My mother and brother have both had malignant melanoma, so I avoid direct sunlight and always use a high SPF.
A few years ago, I was getting colds all the time and suffering terrible fatigue. Last May, I went to see my GP, who suggested low vitamin D may be the issue. Tests confirmed it was appallingly low.
Emma Mapp, 45, (pictured ) from London says walking around in the sun while on holiday gave her a boost after suffering from fatigue and constantly getting colds
I was prescribed high-dose supplements but, as I was going on holiday the following week, I didn’t take them all. Just walking around in the sun gave me a boost. I am very concerned about cancer risk, so I didn’t sit outside at the hottest times of day. Still, I felt fine over the summer.
Last autumn, though, I started to feel very ill. I’d saved the strong supplements, so I took the entire course, which made me feel better — until a few weeks ago, when the fatigue crept back. A blood test showed a result of 72 nmol/L.
I’ll keep taking a supplement and hope that my levels will rise.
Dr Ruxton says: Years of cancer warnings have conditioned many of us to avoid sun, but vitamin D is vital for immune function.
Fortunately, Emma’s pale skin needs little sunshine to stimulate production. Some experts say 15 minutes a day of sun exposure would build up sufficient vitamin D over the summer.
Even then, Emma still needs to take supplements in winter — in 2017, it was recommended that everyone over age one should take 10 ug of vitamin D every day.
MY ENTIRE FAMILY LACKS VITAMIN D
Jouelle Baracho, 39, and husband Steve, 37, work in banking and have daughters aged six and two. Two years ago, Jouelle’s vitamin D level was 35 nmol/L and, since then, she has taken a daily supplement.
Jouelle Baracho, 39, (pictured) assumed her tiredness was caused by having two children and a part-time job before she was tested for vitamin D deficiency
Jouelle says: I have become passionate about vitamin D. The deficiency is so severe among my Asian friends in the UK that I have known children to be hospitalised with joint pain.
Almost my entire family have been diagnosed with deficiency, yet we are all healthy — plus I’m from Goa, where oily fish rich in vitamin D is a diet staple.
However, part of our culture is that we don’t sit in the sun. Combine that with winter in Britain and we’re just not getting enough sunshine.
In 2017, my husband suffered from fatigue. The GP told him to take an over-the-counter vitamin D pill, which he chuckled at — he felt better within two weeks.
Then our five-year-old started waking up in the night crying because her legs hurt. Her vitamin D level was 45 nmol/L — not terrible, but the GP said there could be consequences for her bone health if we ignored it.
All this time, I felt shattered myself, but assumed I was just tired from having two children and a part-time job!
When I did get tested, I learned my own level was just 35 nmol/L.
Now, Steve and I take a daily 25 ug supplement, while our daughter is on a 7.5ug dose.
Our lives have improved beyond belief. We are happier and more lively. I hadn’t realised how down we felt.
Dr Ruxton says: Like many Asians in the UK, Jouelle’s darker skin means she needs far more sun exposure than caucasians to produce enough vitamin D. While supplements are highly effective, nothing beats sun exposure.