Soak Up Some Vitamin D… Guilt Free

Heading to the pool or beach? Here’s how to strike a balance between the health risks and benefits of sunshine.

At this time of year we’re all dreaming of lazy, sunny days spent recharging our batteries and replenishing our vitamin D stores.

This so-called ‘sunshine’ vitamin has been linked to everything from treating depression to preventing diabetes. But with skin cancer and sunburn also firmly on our radar, many of us worry about getting too much of a good thing.

So, before we hit the beach or pool, we thought we’d do a quick rundown of why we need vitamin D, what the risks are, and how we can all stay healthy in the sun this summer.

Why does vitamin D matter?

Vitamin D is essential to good bone and muscle health.

While we do absorb a bit from certain foods, most vitamin D comes from exposing our skin to UVB radiation from the sun. The dilemma is, these same rays also play an important role in sunburn and melanoma.

It’s estimated that nearly one in three Australian adults don’t get enough vitamin D, usually because of lifestyle. Deficiency can cause:

  • rickets – softening and distortion of the bones in children
  • an increased risk of falls – among the elderly
  • osteoporosis – weak bones that break more easily

More recently, it’s been suggested vitamin D can also help prevent cardiovascular disease, some cancers, autoimmune diseases (such as multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes), high blood pressure, flu, type 2 diabetes, depression and cognitive decline.

In fact, a 2007 meta-analysis of 18 trials and more than 55,000 people found that taking vitamin D supplements was associated with fewer deaths from any cause.

Should I take vitamin D supplements?

There have been so many studies and news stories about vitamin D in the last decade, your first instinct might be to run to a chemist.

In some countries such as England (where, as we Aussies love to point out, sunlight is scarcer) public health organisations advise everyone to take a vitamin D supplement.

In Australia, however, most people can get enough vitamin D year-round from the sun. Supplements aren’t needed unless you’re deficient, says the Medical Journal of Australia.

You’re at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency if you:

  • Are mostly confined indoors (eg shift workers, office workers and people in care homes)
  • Have darker skin (especially if you cover most of your body with clothing)
  • Have fairer skin and are very vigilant about sun avoidance
  • Have a BMI over 30

So if you fall into one of these groups, you should talk to your GP, as they can check your levels with a simple blood test. In very rare cases, taking too much vitamin D can be toxic.

Do supplements work?

Recently, an article in The Good Weekend raised questions about whether vitamin D supplements are worth it, and whether we don’t all just need a little more sunshine.

It’s true that aside from its well-recognised role in musculoskeletal health, much of the research into vitamin D’s other benefits is still at an early stage. Randomised controlled trials are needed to show cause and effect – is low vitamin D actually causing these other diseases, or could low vitamin D just be a sign of illness? And is there maybe be something else that the sun can provide, but a tablet can’t?

What about skin cancer?

Despite all this focus on the ‘sunshine vitamin’, though, the message of ‘slip, slop, slap’ is as important as ever.

Australia still has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and sun exposure is a major risk factor.

To help people strike a balance between getting the vitamin D they need and avoiding skin cancer, Cancer Council Australia has teamed up with four other organisations to produce these vitamin D and sun exposure guidelines:

  • UV index above 3 (most of the day during summer) – wear a broad brimmed hat, covering clothing, sunscreen and sunglasses when outdoors for more than a few minutes, and seek shade. This includes for people with a diagnosed vitamin D deficiency, who should follow their GP’s advice about supplements to help rebuild stores safely
  • In autumn/winter (in southern Australia and if the UV index is below 3) – get outdoors in the middle of the day with some skin uncovered and unprotected most days of the week

You can also download the Cancer Council’s free SunSmart app to help you plan sun exposure based on your location and skin type.

What else can I do to boost my vitamin D?

Some of our favourite Christmas foods are also sources of vitamin D. However, diet alone can only provide around 10-15% of your needs.

Good foods include smoked salmon (and other oily, wild-caught fish such as mackerel and fresh tuna), egg yolks (in Christmas egg-nog or devilled eggs), mushrooms and liver (in some pâtés and stuffings). Vitamin D is also added to some breakfast cereals.

So, should you take an extra slice of smoked salmon this Christmas?

If you feel like it, sure. But it’s an even better idea to go for a few minutes’ walk afterwards in the mid-afternoon sun. Then slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat… and scribble a note to see your GP about testing if you’re worried.


Health Direct
Cancer Council Australia
Medical Journal of Australia
Osteoporosis Australia
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