Vitamin D: is your lifestyle increasing your chances of osteoporosis?

We love the sun. It’s the first thing we search for when we go on holiday. It’s the thing we consider when retiring. We complain when there are too many grey days. And we are gripped by an ‘island in the sun’ mentality when it comes to money. If we just work a bit smarter, never mind harder, we could dream away our days lying on a beach under the gentle sway of a coconut tree.

Yes, we love the sun – and then, like a colony of nervous bats, we spend most of our lives hiding away from it. And in doing so, we miss the key gift the sun has for us: Vitamin D, which is only really effectively obtained through direct sunlight on our skin. The sun is the vital cosmic element that makes us more than mere dust – it makes us whole, active and alive.

So why do we think we can do without it?

Well, we don’t really. We just unfortunately forget about it in the hurly-burly of modern life, in our rush to achieve a successful life, in the need to provide for ourselves and our families. Often we rise before the sun, and return home after dark – and the only light we may have experienced that day, is fluorescent.

But quietly, all the while, the very scaffolding of our lives – our invaluable invisible bones, are suffering.

Symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency in adults can include:

  • tiredness, aches and pains, and a general sense of not feeling well;
  • severe bone or muscle pain or weakness that may cause difficulty climbing stairs or getting up from the floor or a low chair; and
  • eventually, as you age, stress fractures, especially in your legs, pelvis, and hips.

The value we may be missing

Vitamin D is vital to so many functions in our body that often we don’t realise how we are contributing to our vulnerability by missing a daily dose of sunlight.

  • Vitamin D is vital for building and keeping bones strong by helping your body to absorb calcium and phosphorus, and can affect as many as 2000 genes in your body
  • Even if you’re taking enough calcium, it could go to waste if you’re deficient in Vitamin D – and without it you may lose bone, have lower bone density, and be more likely to break bones as you age
  • It provides key minerals for bone health and assists with good muscle function
  • It feeds the nerves enabling better transport of messages throughout your body
  • Vitamin D has been found to help combat depression and lack of vitality, and helps to build the immune system
  • Just 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight direct to skin (without sunscreen) a couple of times a week is usually enough to give you the right amount of Vitamin D
  • While it’s best to get Vitamin D from sunlight, foods such as salmon, tuna, fortified milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, are helpful – as are good supplements.

Putting yourself at risk

Without realising it, our lifestyles could be damaging our bodies – and in today’s world, that covers a high percentage of occupations.

  • Evan is a doctor. He has backbreaking shifts – and when he gets any free moments, he sleeps to restore his energy. ‘But I never get enough time to get outside for some healthy sport or just to sit in the sun.’
  • Lisa is an accountant. She earns a good salary but works long hours, often without even a proper lunch hour, eating on the run or skipping meals, ignoring her diet. ‘When the tiredness overwhelms you, you blame the job, but if you’re not eating regular, healthy meals and supplementing for lost Vitamin D, you’re making the trouble for yourself.’
  • Theresa works in a bank. She is seated all day, dealing with clients’ queries. Not only is she missing Vitamin D, she’s not getting any exercise either. ‘A walk around the shops at lunchtime is no answer,’ she says. ‘It’s too slow and way too little movement to really work your bones. And in a shopping centre, you don’t see sunlight.’
  • Ted is a data analyst. He spends his days with computers, but says he does take time for gym in the evenings twice a week. Is this enough? Ruefully, he shakes his head. ‘There are days when I never see the sun. In fact, most of the time.’
  • Jessica is a ballet dancer. ‘I get a lot of exercise,’ she smiles. ‘But I never go in the sun. It isn’t good for a dancer to have a tan.’

Sound familiar?

Lack of exercise, lack of sunlight, high stress levels (which dangerously increase cortisol levels), as well as poor diets and snack eating, lack of proper sleep, rest and relaxation. All these living in the fast lane lifestyles are depleting your body of the nutrients it needs, and setting up the subtle inroads to osteoporosis.

Your skin makes Vitamin D from the ultra-violet light (UVB rays) in sunlight, and stores it for later use. So snatching those golden moments whenever you can, especially in winter is vital. Getting enough calcium and Vitamin D through sun exposure, diet or supplements – is an essential part of any osteoporosis prevention plan.

Love your bones. Love the sun. Get them to meet as often as you can.

NOFSA (National Osteoporosis Foundation South Africa)

NOFSA is the only nonprofit, voluntary health organisation dedicated to promoting lifelong bone health. We focus on reducing the widespread prevalence of osteoporosis while working to find a cure for the disease, and by supporting research and developing programmes of education and advocacy.

Find out more about our work at: www.osteoporosis.org.za