Most people know that calcium is essential for healthy bones but what about vitamin D?
Jean Hailes Foundation Research Director Prof Helena Teede says vitamin D is an essential nutrient for the development of healthy bones. “Without adequate vitamin D, our bodies can’t absorb enough calcium and phosphorus from the gut, which puts us at risk of osteoporosis.”
The main source of vitamin D in Australia is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sun exposure. While most people get enough sunlight by going about their usual outdoor activities, some individuals or groups are at risk of vitamin D deficiency.
“Elderly people are one group who are at an increased risk. Some studies have shown that up to 76% of nursing home residents have some vitamin D deficiency,” says Prof Teede. “This group is also at increased risk of osteoporotic fractures and falls.”
Other groups who may be at risk of vitamin D deficiency include:
- Babies of mothers who have low vitamin D
- People who are dark-skinned
- People who cover their skin for cultural or religious reasons
- People who work irregular hours or shift work
- Postmenopausal women
Even people who are not in one of these groups are at risk of vitamin D deficiency if they fail to spend enough time outside in the sunshine. Many people find the mixed messages about sun exposure confusing; if sunshine is good for us, then what about the ‘slip, slop slap’ message?
Australia has one of the world’s highest levels of UV radiation, so one of the highest rates of skin cancer. Protecting our skin from skin cancer is very important and Prof Teede recommends following the Cancer Council’s advice for sensible sun exposure.
“It’s about striking the right balance between minimising the risk of cancer and making sure we get enough vitamin D to protect our bones. For those people who cannot get enough vitamin D from sun exposure, supplements may be necessary and that’s something you should discuss with your health professional.”