Vitamin D essential to health

Sunshine accounts for 90 per cent of our intake of Vitamin D, which poses a problem for anyone living in northern Europe in winter time and even in summer.  However, you have to have your skin exposed to the sun to  enable the body to make Vitamin D. Some people think it’s enough that it’s sunny, but rarely go outside! The NHS in the UK advises  that everyone should consider taking a daily Vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter. They often talk about it being included in a number of foods, but other priorities take over.

Deficiency in Vitamin D can lead to bone loss, poor muscle function and an increased risk of falls and fractures – an increasing problem as people get older.  Migraines, regular headaches,  joint pain, depression, SAD or insomnia can also point to a Vitamin D deficiency.   The Chief Medical Officer is suggesting extending free vitamins to more  young children, rather than just those from low income families who currently receive them.  Also at risk are pregnant and breastfeeding women and the over 65s, who should be taking supplements.   Not only is Vitamin D essential for the bones and heart it is also needed for a healthy immune and nervous system, enables blood to clot normally and maintains healthy teeth.

Why we become deficient:

  • In northern countries we have six months of very little sun.
  • Winter sun in the UK is not strong enough for Vitamin D to be made in the body.
  • Few people get enough Vitamin D from their diet.
  • The skin cancer message may have been taken to extremes – we need sunlight, but not excessive sun bathing.
  • Vitamin D in the body only lasts for three weeks.
  • Some people cover up their bodies for religious or fashion reasons.

All things in moderation mean that you don’t have to lie in the hot sun for hours on end to get enough exposure. A sensible amount of exposure (20 to 30 minutes) will do more good than harm, particularly on sunny summer days that aren’t necessarily hot.

Vitamin D is essential for healthy immune function, cognitive function, and bone health.

Dietary sources:

• Salmon and other oily fish
• Eggs
• Milk
• Liver
• Margarine
• Fortified breakfast cereals

Health experts claim that people are not eating enough of the above. In the US the recommended daily levels of intake of Vitamin day are 5 mcg a day.

Problems caused by Vitamin D deficiency
A deficiency in Vitamin D activates the mechanism that boosts blood pressure; stimulates the parathyroid hormone which increases inflammation, and increases insulin resistance – insulin is not recognised by the body, leading to high blood sugar levels.

• High blood pressure/hypertension
• Heart disease
• Alzheimer’s
• Diabetes
• Osteoporosis – affects 1.2 million women in the UK
• Colo-rectal and breast cancers
• Rickets (severe deficiency)

The UK government recommends that pregnant women and nursing mums take 10mcg of Vitamin D daily. Breast fed babies need 7-8.5 mcg a day, while formula milk is fortified with Vitamin D. Although Vitamin D supplements are recommended to pregnant women and children under five, it is this advice is often overlooked by GPs and much of the official information is vague.

Australia changes its sun message

Seven charities in the UK have issued joint guidelines about Vitamin D, recommending short spells in the sun without suncream. Two of the charities endorsing the health message are Cancer Research UK and the National Osteoporosis Society.

According to the BBC, Professor Rona Mackie, from the British Association of Dermatologists, said sun protection with high factor suncream on all the time is not ideal, in terms of Vitamin D levels.

‘Even Australia has changed its policy on this. They’re now producing charts showing parts of Australia where sun protection may not be required during some parts of the year. Some of the messages about sun exposure have been too negative. UK summer sunshine isn’t desperately strong. We don’t have many days in the year when it is very intense.

‘What’s changed is that we’re now saying that exposure of 10 to 15 minutes to the UK summer sun, without sun cream, several times a week is probably a safe balance between adequate vitamin D levels and any risk of skin cancer.”

What is osteoporosis?

Ask a woman about osteoporosis and she’ll probably tell you it’s something that happens when you get older and your bones become brittle.  But that’s not something she needs to think about now is it?  In truth whether you walked to school or not has an impact on your chances of getting the disease.

There’s predicted to be a massive rise in the number of women with osteoporosies in future due to a number of lifestyle issues: including lack of exercise, too much dieting, poor nutrition, , smoking, contraceptive injections and fizzy drinks which strip the body of calcium.

Osteoporosis is when bones become porous and full of holes. Bones are changing and renewing throughout our lives but the problem arises when the rate of renewal doesn’t keep up with the rate of breakdown.  There is, however,  little warning of this until one of her bones is fractured        and she doesn’t even know how it happened.

The statistics*

  • One in two women and one in five men over 50 break a bone, mainly due to poor bone health.
  • Almost three million people in the UK have osteoporosis.
  • The numbers have risen by 17 per cent in 10 years in England.
  • Every year there are 230,000 osteopathic fractures in the UK.
  • More than 14,000 women die every year after breaking a bone as a result of osteoporosis (more than die of breast cancer).
  • One in five people who suffer a hip fracture die within three months.
  • 1,150 people die every month as a result of hip fractures.

Figures from The National Osteoporosis Society:

Who gets it?

One in three women over 50 have osteoporosis as opposed to one in nine men. The risk factors include:

• A family history of osteoporosis
• Suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia
• Having irregular periods
• Some pharmaceutical drugs including steroids
• Lack of weight-bearing exercise and conversely too much exercise!
• Early menopause or hysterectomy
• Heavy alcohol, fizzy drinks and caffeine intake
• Smoking cigarettes

According to Dr Marilyn Glenville, women’s nutritional health expert and author of Osteoporosis – The Silent Epidemic,  ‘Oestrogen protects against the disease as does testosterone but around the time of the menopause women experience a dip in the hormone’s production.  The dip in testosterone for middle aged men is not as extreme but if a man takes steroids his chances of getting osteoporosis are just as high as a woman’s.’

Deficiency in calcium and Vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis. Vitamin D should be combined with calcium, and magnesium should be taken with calcium, so the following products are suitable.

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What to do if you have it

Most people who have osteoporosis need to take prescription drugs but they can also adopt lifestyle measures aimed at prevention to make sure that bone mass does not deteriorate further. Anyone who has a scan and finds that they are borderline can encourage bone growth by doing weight-bearing exercise, eating healthily and avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, fizzy drinks, caffeine and sugar.

Bone density scan

It’s not easy to get a bone density scan on the NHS unless you’ve already had fractures, but they are available at various private clinics, and Boots is running a pilot  service in Birmingham and Bournemouth stores – £95 for a 30 minute scan.

The advantage of having a scan is that you know whether your bone mass is healthy or if you are on the way to developing a problem.  Prevention is better than cure, so it’s important to exercise and eat healthily anyway to prevent osteoporosis and all other kinds of illness.

Young people at risk

‘We took a group of 69 people and gave them a bone density scan,’ said Maryon Stewart of the Natural Health Advisory Service and author of The Phyto Factor.  ‘It turned out that the women in their 20s and 30s were the ones with low readings. This is because they are drinking alcohol much earlier, have lots of fizzy drinks, eat junk food and have a diet low in calcium.

‘There is a consensus that bone marrow is reaching its peak when a woman is in her early 20s and then it goes downhill. Many women do not know how to meet their body’s needs, they don’t get enough nutrients and they become low in calcium, magnesium and essential fatty acids.’


Healthy Eating

High acid foods can remove calcium from the bone so it is important to eat more alkaline foods as well such as  fruit and vegetables. The most acidic foods are red meat, cheese, caffeine and sugar.

• It’s important to cut down on caffeine which decreases the absorption of calcium and increases its excretion through the urine, as do salt and sugar.
• Alcohol decreases the activity of bone-building cells.
• Fizzy drinks are so high in phosphorus which encourages the body to believe it needs more calcium which it takes from bones – they also contain caffeine and sugar.

Eating to beat osteoporosis:

• Fruit and vegetables – preferably organic, but not spinach or rhubarb that block calcium absorption
• Isoflavones – lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, garlic, sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seeds, linseeds,  and GM free soya
• Wholegrains – rice, oats, barley, wheat
• Sprouting vegetables like alfafa

Asian women do not tend to suffer from hot flushes in menopause nor do they have a high incidence of osteoporosis, and they eat loads of soya!

The British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT):, 08706 061284
The Institute for Optimum Nutrition,, 020 8877 9993

What is weight bearing exercise?

Fairly obviously any exercise where you put weight on your limbs is weight-bearing – so swimming does not count.  However, the ones that do include:

• Walking
• Running
• Bouncing on a mini trampoline
• Skipping
• Playing tennis
• Dancing
Dr Marilyn Glenville explains, ‘Your skeleton is constantly fighting against gravity, and it is that fight that helps to maintain bone density. You need to load the skeleton and put it under stress for it to respond.’

Four or five sessions of weight bearing exercise a week will help to build up b one mass but it’s important to choose something you enjoy.


Known to benefit health in a variety of ways yoga is excellent for developing balance – if someone can stand on one leg they are far less likely to fall over!  It improves flexibility, keeps the body supple and encourages people to breathe properly. Most people breathe in a shallow way and do not get enough oxygen to the cells of the whole body.

T’ai chi and chi kung

Some NHS practices have put T’ai Chi and Chi Kung on prescription for pensioners because of its many benefits.  Both encourage balance, build up energy, improve posture and suppleness, helping with co-ordination and focusing the mind thereby improving memory and clarity!  You don’t need to be old to benefit!


Less gentle than T’ai Chi and Yoga it helps to tone and build up muscle and release strain on the back. The exercises can be quite tough but they are done from a standing, lying or sitting position and can certainly enhance confidence about balance and posture. 

Complementary therapies:

Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique is all about learning where you are holding tension and how to release it. It improves posture, balance and breathing and as it is not exercise it can be undertaken by anyone, regardless of their mobility.

Ian O’Donnell, Alexander Technique teacher, claims, The Technique is helpful for encouraging people to sit, stand and perform activities in a more balanced and co-ordinated way putting less stress on the spine and the rest of the body.’


In a perfect world we would get all the nutrients we need from our food but many women get out of shape by the time they reach the menopause due to years of periods and pregnancy. 

It’s important to ensure a good intake of calcium, magnesium and essential fatty acids such as fish oils or flaxseed oil (linseed) on top of taking a multivitamin.  According to Maryon Stewart, ‘If you take Vitamin D, calcium and fish oils it will help your body’s uptake of calcium.’  She suggests recipes for delicious smoothies packed with nutrients in her book The Phyto Factor.


It combines lifestyle advice with herbal medicine and nutrition.  Rosalind Blackwell, herbalist and naturopath suggests Vitex Agnus Castus as a plant that regulates hormones and helps the body to produce progesterone which is needed to prevent osteoporosis.  ‘Nettle tea is rich in minerals because of its deep roots. Women who are at risk need to supplement with magnesium as so many are deficient in it, and boron which has an effect on the metabolisation of oestrogen.’

Homeopathy:  completely safe and holistic so will take into account all symptoms as well as the person’s own constitution and personality:
Acupuncture:  can relieve muscle tension and specific aches and pains by bringing energy to the area:
Cranial osteopathy:  practitioners can detect imbalances in the cranio-sacral fluid and correct them through very gentle manipulation improving general health of the body:
Reflexology:  the zones of the feet relate to parts of the body and the treatment offers an all round health benefit. Contact: The Association of Reflexologists,
Counselling:  depression and anxiety have a knock-on effect on the body and it’s hard to stick to a healthy lifestyle when you’re feeling down. 
Dr Marilyn Glenville practises in London and Tunbridge Wells: 08705 329244, Postal consultations available.  Her book Osteoporosis The Silent Epidemic is available at Amazon and Nutricentre – click on the ads on this page.

Maryon Stewart practises at The Natural Health Advisory Service, 01273 487366,

Rosalind Blackwell practises at Crickham, Somerset, 01934 712848,

The Phyto Factor by Maryon Stewart costs £10.99, call 020 7631 4235

Ian O’Donnell MSTAT practises in Surrey,

STAT: (Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique): 0776 4907 162