Every year in the UK we wait desperately for the summer to begin. But feeling the sun on your skin isn’t only good for your mood, it’s also essential for bone and muscle health – and it may even lower your risk of developing cancer.
Vitamin D is synthesised by your body when your skin is exposed to direct sunlight. However, this far north of the equator, sunlight isn’t strong enough most of the year to initiate vitamin D production. The lack of sun in the UK means that around 30% of Brits have low levels of vitamin D in the winter and 10% are deficient in the summer.
From late March to early September, a little exposure to sunshine will help keep your D levels topped up. Experts say going outside for a matter of minutes without sunscreen around the middle of the day every day, or as often as you can, should be enough. The rest of the time, take a good-quality vitamin D supplement instead.
The government advises adults to consider taking a 10microgram supplement of vitamin D daily between October and March. (We use the abbreviation mcg for micrograms, but you may see μg on packets. Some packaging uses IU instead, which stands for International Units – 10micrograms of vitamin D is equivalent to 400 IU.) Given that most of us are spending much less time outdoors during the COVID-19 lockdown, the advice has been updated in 2020 to suggest that we all continue to take a 10microgram supplement through the spring and summer while the lockdown continues.
If you’re not already clued up on vitamin D supplements, we have all the info you could possibly need on sunshine pills, as absolutely no-one calls them, but first, a selection of good-quality vitamin D supplements.
The Best Vitamin D Supplements To Buy
Boots Vitamin D 10mcg
There’s no need to spend big bucks on vitamin D, because all major supermarkets and pharmacists stock an own-brand version. This tub from Boots contains 90 tablets that contain the recommended 10mcg-a-day and it costs under £3. Unless you want to buy in bulk or struggle with swallowing tablets, there’s no real reason to look beyond own-brand options.
Buy from Boots | £2.30 for 90 tablets
Holland & Barrett Vitamin D3 10mcg
You can choose between 10mcg per tablet and 25mcg per tablet with Holland & Barrett’s own-brand vitamin D tablets, and the larger 250-pill tub will see you all the way through winter to the sunny side of spring.
Buy from Holland & Barrett | £8.19 for 250 tablets (currently reduced to £4.09)
Solgar Vitamin D3 15mcg Softgels
If you find it difficult to swallow hard tablets whole, these soft capsules will serve you just as well in your bid to get enough D3 throughout the darker months. You do pay a bit of a premium to get your vitamin D in this form, but for the hard tablet-averse it’ll be money well spent to avoid a daily pain in the neck. Solgar sells tablets with varied concentration of vitamin D, but the 10mcg is hard to come by and sold out on the Solgar website last we checked.
Myvegan Vegan Vitamin D3 Softgels
If you are a vegan then you should know D3, the one that your skin makes when it’s exposed to the sun and therefore the one you’ll find in supplements, is most commonly derived from animal products. However, it can also be made using lichen algae as in these softgels. Each capsule contains 25mcg.
Buy from Myvegan | £8.99 for 60 capsules (currently reduced to £6.89)
VOOST Vitamin D Effervescent Supplement Tablets
If even soft capsules stick in your craw then these soluble tablets might be the way to go. Drop one in water and it will fizz around to create a berry-flavoured drink that contains 25mcg of vitamin D.
Better You Dlux Vitamin D Oral Spray
If tablets and softgels aren’t doing it for you, perhaps taking your vitamin D via an oral spray might be more palatable. This spray contains 100 doses, with each spritz containing 25mcg of vitamin D. That’s if you use it right – spray into the soft tissue on the inside of your cheek, rather than opting for an aftershave-style misting approach. The latter really will do very little for your vitamin D intake.
Vitamin D Explained
What is vitamin D?
“Vitamin D, often referred to as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps promote the absorption of calcium, regulates bone growth and plays a role in immune function,” says LloydsPharmacy pharmacist Pareena Patel. “These nutrients are key to helping keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
“The body does not produce enough vitamin D on its own, so it needs to be consumed through sun exposure, food or supplements.”
What’s the difference between vitamin D2 and vitamin D3?
“We do not make vitamin D2,” says Patel. “Vitamin D2 is produced by plants and mushrooms exposed to sunlight, and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. Dairy-free milk including coconut, almond and soya milk are often boosted with vitamin D2.
“Your skin produces vitamin D3 naturally when you spend time in the sun: however, during the winter months when there is less sunlight, you might not get enough, which is why a vitamin supplement can work well as a top-up.
“If you want to increase your vitamin D3 intake through diet, it can be only found in animal-sourced foods. Sources of vitamin D3 are foods such as liver, egg yolk, butter, oily fish like salmon and mackerel and fish oil.”
Do you need a vitamin D supplement?
If you live in the UK, or other high-latitude regions of the northern hemisphere, then the chances are that you will have some level of vitamin D deficiency. One of vitamin D’s main roles is to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, so a severe deficiency can result in bone pain and tenderness from a condition called osteomalacia, as well as contributing to many other health issues. Supplementation can keep your levels in the ideal range to help prevent these problems, but be aware that taking high doses can deplete levels of other essential nutrients, including vitamin K.
When should you take vitamin D supplements?
The standard government recommendation is for all adults in the UK to consider taking vitamin D supplements from October until March, but during the COVID-19 lockdown this has been extended to include spring and summer while people are required to stay at home – apart from in specific, limited circumstances – to slow the spread of the virus.
Even outside of unusual situations like the COVID-19 lockdown there are people at particular risk of a vitamin D deficiency who might need supplements all year round.
Who is most at risk? Well, if you don’t spend much time outdoors or tend to not expose much skin when you do go outside – favouring long sleeves and a hat, perhaps – then it’s worth weighing up the benefits of taking year-round vitamin D supplements. The government also suggests that babies and children under five take daily supplements all year round.
People with dark skin (particularly those with African, African-Caribbean and south Asian backgrounds) may also have problems getting enough vitamin D from sunlight, so they should consider taking a supplement all year round.
How much do I need?
In the UK, the government recommendation is 10mcg (400 IU) a day for adults and children over five. Infants’ and babies’ intake will vary depending on whether or not they are fed baby formula, because that contains vitamin D.
Can you take too much vitamin D?
The government recommendation of 10mcg of vitamin D a day is lower than you’ll find in many supplements. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily dangerous, but there is a point at which the amount of vitamin D you take leads not to better health, but to too much calcium in the body, which can weaken your bones, and damage your heart and kidneys. For adults that amount is a hefty 100mcg (4,000 IU) a day, so you’d have to be going some to take that much, but it’s something to bear in mind.
For kids, the recommended maximum is lower – 50mcg in children aged one to ten and 25mcg in infants of 12 months and under.
How should I take it?
You should take a vitamin D supplement after a meal that contains high-quality fat because it’s fat-soluble, which means it’s better absorbed by your body in the presence of dietary fat.
What other benefits of vitamin D are there?
A 2017 study suggested that bread and milk should be fortified with vitamin D, saying that this could stop 3.25 million a year suffering from colds and flu.
Researchers from Queen Mary University of London analysed data from more than 11,000 participants in previous studies and found that one person in every 33 taking vitamin D supplements would be spared a respiratory tract infection (ranging from the sniffles to the flu or pneumonia) as a result.
Lead researcher Professor Adrian Martineau said, “Assuming a UK population of 65 million, and that 70% have at least one acute respiratory infection each year, then daily or weekly vitamin D supplements will mean 3.25 million fewer people would get at least one acute respiratory infection a year.”
The team also suggested that expecting everyone to take supplements was unrealistic, and that the UK should consider fortifying foods like bread and milk with vitamin D. This is already done in several other countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and Sweden.
“Vitamin D fortification of foods provides a steady, low-level intake of vitamin D that has virtually eliminated profound deficiency in several countries,” said Martineau.