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Vitamin D: Fake News or Just No News?

Published: 23rd Feb 2017   

How ironic it should be, that as winter begins to release its grip on the UK, that the sunshine micro-nutrient vitamin D should hit the headlines! Nearly all mainstream media outlets ranging from most newspapers to the BBC reported on the results of a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on the 15th February 2017 [1] showing that Vitamin D protects against respiratory tract infections (Coughs & Colds). In a time where fake news can easily be mistaken as fact we thought the results were worth a closer look.

The study in question [1] is a scientific review and can be accessed online from the BMJ website. The authors inform that scientists already know that a low blood concentration of Vitamin D is associated with an increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. Naturally this raises the question, "can Vitamin D supplements decrease the risk and protect us from infections like common colds and the flu?" The background information in the paper states that to date 5 previous reviews of the evidence have been conducted: 2 show a protective effect of Vitamin D and 3 show no benefit in taking a supplement at all. So clearly there are questions to be answered here.

The current BMJ review assessed 25 randomised controlled trials of Vitamin D supplementation carried out before 2015 and found that a positive, protective effect on the rates of respiratory tract infections was produced by taking the supplement. This makes the score 3 all in the for and against argument for taking Vitamin D to prevent a cold, making it hard to see how the mainstream media got so excited by the results, albeit in the context of other evidence.

On a closer inspection of the BMJ review it can be seen that out of the 25 trials studied only 6 were carried out in healthy adults and just 3 were conducted in the UK. Therefore, these results are not a true representation of the average UK population making it hard to draw conclusions. The findings showed a statistically significant benefit from taking Vitamin D supplements in people who had a low baseline level of the nutrient, i.e. they were deficient in the vitamin and gained a protective effect from taking the supplement.

Vitamin D is needed to ensure that bones, teeth and muscles are healthy, a deficiency can cause Rickets in children and Osteomalacia in adults. You can gain adequate levels through the summer months by exposure to sunlight on the skin, but take care not to overexpose the skin and avoiding sunburn is a must. During the winter months when we cover up and stay inside, Vitamin D can be gained from the diet in either oily fish, red meat, liver, egg yolks and some fortified cereals or spreads.

The National Health Service recommends, through its' NHS Choices website [2], that people should consider taking a daily 10mg Vitamin D supplement through the winter months if their intake of oily fish, red meat, liver and egg yolks is low. In addition, the Department of Health states that some groups of people will not get the required intake of Vitamin D regardless of time of year because they have little or no exposure to sunlight. People who are housebound or unable to get outside easily are likely to be deficient and will benefit from the supplement.

It would appear that, contrary to recent media reports, that we are only likely to prevent respiratory infections with Vitamin D supplements if actually deficient in the nutrient. So, if your dietary intake is lacking in Vitamin D rich sources and your exposure to sunlight is limited, the Stubbington Natural Health Clinic offer a range of Vitamin D supplements to keep you healthy. If you would like help with ensuring your Vitamin D intake is adequate, then you can also book an appointment with Lin, the SNHC resident nutritionist.

[1] BMJ 2017;356:i6583. BMJ

[2] NHS Choices. NHS


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