In the past, lovers of sunshine have been warned on numerous occasions about limiting the hours of tanning to protect themselves from the damaging rays of the sun. Though the results of the anti-sun campaign are promising, there is an unexpected side effect to the crusade against skin cancer: apparently our body does not get enough of the ever-so-important Vitamin D.
Researchers have established that Vitamin D – synthesized from the rays of the sun and found in few foods – plays an important part in the prevention of many more illnesses than previously thought.
For a long time the scientific community thought that Vitamin D is almost only responsible for the regulation of bone formation (e.g. enhancing the calcium uptake). Research from the past 15 years, however, has revealed that lack of the vitamin significantly increases the risk of heart disease and malignant tumors in the prostate, breasts and colon; there were also studies linking the frequency of respiratory infections to low levels of Vitamin D.
Studies conducted among pregnant women showed correlation between Vitamin D deficiency and gestational diabetes as well as preeclampsia. It is important to know that the fetus is unable to synthesize Vitamin D on its own. Therefore the mother should have the correct level of vitamin D in order to ensure the proper development of the child.
The recognition of all the above led twelve Hungarian professional associations to take a common stand and suggest that the recommended Vitamin D amount for adults during the winter be increased from 400 to 1,500-2,000 International Units (IU) daily, noting that achieving this amount with dietary supplements is especially important in the case of pregnant women, and adding that overweight people may even need twice the already increased level. The need of dark-skinned people living in the temperate zones could also be higher, because their skin pigments absorb UV rays necessary for the production of Vitamin D.
Though not unheard of, such a uniform agreement is rare among these medical societies. While the Hungarian National Institute for Food and Nutrition Science maintains its official recommendation at 200 IUs, the current consensus is most likely resulting from the fact that nearly 70 per cent of the Hungarian population suffer from some sort of vitamin deficiency.
Vitamin D level is not measured routinely in the general practice. State insurance only covers tests requested by certain specialists.
If we accept the common stand of the professional community and consider that the daily Vitamin D intake of the average Hungarian household is below 80 IUs per capita, it becomes clear that the difference has to be compensated for somehow.
Since our body is able to synthesize Vitamin D from sunshine, this is somewhat easier during summer. Some experts even suggest that we should sunbathe for 20 minutes without any protection. The risk of skin cancer should not be ignored, so unprotected tanning should not be done during the middle of the day, and in order to avoid sunburn the use of sunscreen is advised during the first few times in the sun.
The situation is more difficult during the winter months: the sun shines much less and, even if it does, who would go tanning when it´s cold outside? The levels of Vitamin D can also be increased with adjusted diet or the use of dietary supplements. Experts suggest the latter and there is a reason: in order to reach 1600 IUs, one would have to consume 200 grams of herring or salmon every day. Alternatives for fish include 400 grams of sardine, 15 eggs, 1 kilogram of veal or 2 kilograms of mushrooms.
As eating fish for the rest of our life cannot be expected and consuming 15 eggs or 1 kilogram of veal every day has more risks than benefits, the only solution is to supplement our diet.
It is important to note that Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, stored in the body for long periods and thus overdosing has its risks. It can increase the level of calcium in the blood, which could lead to loss of consciousness and kidney damage.
In Hungary, traditionally Vitamin D supplements have been available only by prescription. However, by now more and more Vitamin D-containing supplements are seen on the drug store shelves. Even in the food stores you can find Vitamin D-enriched products. As a basic rule, it is not recommended to consume more than 2000 units of Vitamin D a day unless your doctor orders. Some products define their Vitamin D level in micrograms. One microgram of Vitamin D3 is equal to 40 International Units.
When in doubt about the proper amount of Vitamin D for yourself or your child, talk to your physician or pediatrician, especially if you suffer from some sort of chronic disease or are expecting a child. In the case of some illnesses a higher dose of Vitamin D could prove to be beneficial, whereas with others (such as sarcoidosis) a smaller dose could have a detrimental effect.