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UK urged to take Vitamin D supplements to prevent bone disease

Vitamin D

Experts at the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) are urging the UK public to consider taking a daily supplement of vitamin D.

In order to maintain good health and avoid problems linked to deficiency, SACN is recommending that from the age of 1 onwards everybody should take a daily 10 microgram supplement because UK weather conditions are not conducive to natural production via the skin.

The SACN is calling on the scientific community and the general public to have their say on the proposed guidelines via its draft consultation paper. Professor Hilary Powers, chair of the SACN Vitamin D working group, says: "We look forward to comments on the scientific aspects of the report from stakeholders such as academics, NGOs (non-governmental organisations), charities, industry representatives and members of the public. These will help shape the final recommendations and ensure the transparency and integrity of the report."

The draft document reviews the impact of vitamin D deficiency on overall health and highlights the importance of the nutrient in protecting musculoskeletal health.

Following a request from the Department of Health in 2010, SACN also considered links between vitamin D and other health outcomes including cancer, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and heart disease but found insufficient evidence to draw any firm conclusions at this stage.

British weather and Vitamin D

For the majority of people, natural synthesis of vitamin D via skin exposure to the sun was until recently considered adequate, however, factors such as working indoors, keeping covered to protect the skin from sun damage and Britain's often inclement weather could mean that many people are vitamin D deficient even during summer months.

In addition, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) says throughout the winter months (from mid-October to early April) in the UK there is no ambient ultraviolet sunlight of the appropriate wavelength for adequate skin synthesis of vitamin D.

SACN is now recommending that blood concentration of 25(OH)D should not fall below 25nmol/L at any time of year.

Why is Vitamin D so important?

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for the maintenance of healthy bones, required to ensure optimum absorption of calcium and phosphorus from the diet. Deficiency can result in bones becoming soft and weakened, leading to bone deformities and osteomalacia, causing bone pain.

The vitamin is especially important for growing bones in children, where deficiency can cause rickets. According to NHS Choices, rickets causes bone pain, poor growth and deformities of the skeleton, such as bowed legs, curvature of the spine and thickening of the ankles, wrists and knees. Children with rickets are also more susceptible to bone fractures.

Rickets Xray and Vitamin D for Bones

Rickets can lead to deformity of the bones and slow growth.

A common ailment in the past, rickets had mostly disappeared in the Western world as a result of improved diet, however the NHS says there has been an increase in recent years - 900 cases were diagnosed in England in 2012.

Vitamin D is added to some breakfast cereals, margarine spreads and infant formula milk but can also be sourced naturally in foods such as eggs, meat and oily fish but experts say the amounts are small and not sufficient to prevent deficiency.

Current advice on vitamin supplements

The NHS currently recommends at-risk groups including pregnant and breastfeeding women, babies and children aged between six months and five years and adults over the age of 65 take a supplement.

People with darker skins of African, Afro-Caribbean and South-Asian origin are also recommended to supplement their intake as well as those who spend very little time outdoors during daylight hours, such as night shift workers or the housebound.

The SACN say this advice still stands until consultation responses have been taken into consideration and its final recommendations have been submitted to the Government.

The consultation document, which runs until September 23, can be found on the SACN website. SACN's final report is expected in early 2016.

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