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Soak up the Sun: Benefits of Vitamin D

With summer all but upon us (although with recent flash flooding and heavy down pours here in the UK, you wouldn’t think it!) I felt it apt to write my blog about the big ‘buzz’ in the nutrition field at the moment, Vitamin D.

You have probably heard of it – but what is it? And how does it help? Well the answer is it would appear as though it helps, A LOT!

Ever wondered why some of the big clubs take their squads on pre-season/mid-season training camps to sunnier climates? It’s not just to have a bit of banter and a team-bonding session! There are valid reasons behind it, and that is Vitamin D and the many benefits it can provide!

The short video below (I apologise in advance for the ‘rhyming’ commentary!) gives a brief introduction to Vitamin D and its benefits.

Now for all readers that live north of Birmingham – you may wish to pay particular attention to this article – as it may be more prevalent for northerners (as a born and bred Londoner, travelling anything further north of Oxford I begin to get a nose bleed!) as some research surrounding Vitamin D suggests that UK residents north of Birmingham are not necessarily getting enough Vitamin D due to lack sunlight and thusly absorption to produce Vitamin D.

What is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, which essentially means it needs fat in order to be absorbed in the body. People that suffer from conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis, where they cannot store or digest fat properly, often suffer from low levels of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K) and may need a multivitamin in order to maintain their levels of these vitamins.

If you have watched the video above, you’ll have seen that the best and most natural way to get your Vitamin D fix is to soak up the sun. Currently, the 15-a-side game is in the off-season, and for those of you doing the 7’s circuit for a bit of off-season fitness (as a former front row, 7’s is not my forte I will admit!) you’ll more than likely be out in the sun all day during throughout the tournaments and chances are, you’re soaking up the rays to produce Vitamin D…my advice is to crack on!

For those of you that aren’t participating in the 7s – my advice would be to get out in the sun as much as possible, and if there isn’t any, it gives you the excuse to take some time off work and go on holiday! But guys and girls, I will say this: PLEASE remember the sun cream – I’m not going to be held accountable for the ‘lobster’ look!

Vitamin D benefits

Well…where do I start? Both published and research in the pipeline is showing increasing benefits to aiding immunity, muscle function, bone formation/growth – it would appear as though Vitamin D is fast becoming a cornerstone of our diet!

In the winter months, as sunlight diminishes, our bodies Vitamin D reserves decrease. This is being backed up by research. A recent study published earlier this year (May 2012) in the Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism journal found that Vitamin D levels in professional premiership footballers living in the north of England, dropped significantly between August through to December, with the authors concluding that altered nutritional strategies may be necessary in order to maintain elevated Vitamin D status for correct muscle function throughout the winter months of the season.

This is further backed up by similar research coming from a study out of Spain that found players Vitamin D levels steadily decreased throughout the study, the final blood test (in winter) found that 64% of players tested had Vitamin D levels below the recommended 75nmol/L – so it would appear that some athletes in sunnier climates are also being affected by low Vitamin D!

Now, for the purist out there, that says Football and Rugby are different sports, so therefore does this research translate? On the surface, yes they are different – however they are also share many similar attributes in terms of their running patterns (short, sharp, repeated sprints – coupled with periods of sustained jogging) and distances covered in a game are virtually identical.

So, if footballers are affected in winter months with lowering Vitamin D –are rugby players? Of course they are! So therefore surely nutritional strategies should be put in place to account for this – would you not agree?

Vitamin D has also shown to have a significant effect on your immune system. I attended a conference recently where a fellow performance nutritionist from the English Institute of Sport (EIS) presented findings of the effects of Vitamin D supplementation on the athletes under his supervision. He found that in the athletes he provided support for, only 16% became ill when their plasma (blood) Vitamin D status was above 80nmol/L, this is in comparison to the athletes who were below 80nmol/L – where 100% reported some form of illness.

These finding have been supported by a number of published papers – one that springs to mind is a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2010) which found that by supplying children in Japan with a daily Vitamin D supplement (1200 IU) that incidents of Influenza reduced significantly. This would indicate that Vitamin D may play an important role in aiding our immune system, particularly throughout the winter months when we have a lack of sunlight.

Where do I get it?

As I’ve mentioned, you can get more than enough Vitamin D by going out in the sunshine. However, if you aren’t able to get outdoors – Vitamin D is also available in a variety of foods such as the ones shown in this video below:

Now, a word of warning that I ALWAYS say to an athlete/s, no matter their level in their chosen sport:

When it comes to Vitamins and Minerals: MORE DOES NOT = BETTER!

High levels of Vitamin D (generally got through over-consumption of high level Vitamin D supplements) can lead to hypercalcaemia – which is where calcium is deposited in to soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments etc.) which can lead weakening of bone structure.

Am I deficient?

The simple answer to this is, without having a blood test; it is very difficult to say. If you have access to a club doctor, or local GP and you wish to have your Vitamin D serum concentration tested – then be my guest – although you may well have to pay for it (although DO NOT quote me on that!).

If you are found to be deficient, firstly – DO NOT PANIC! It is easily fixed, as I hope I have demonstrated throughout this blog, a combination of sun and correct foods should provide an adequate solution.

However, if it is seriously low, which I have seen in some athletes in the past – I would use a supplement of Vitamin D3 (SHORT-TERM ONLY!!!) whilst nutritional strategies are put in place, as I have said before – supplements are not a permanent fix!


Vitamin D is one of the latest crazes in the nutrition field at the moment, and with more and more evidence emerging highlighting its benefits, I can certainly see why there is such a fuss. However, I will say this, Vitamins and Minerals work and inter-link closely with each other, so the ‘boring’ message of eating a variety of different foods to get a variety of Vitamins & Minerals is still very true!

The chances of you ‘over-dosing’ on Vitamin D are pretty remote, so please don’t panic! Eat oily fish, eggs & milk, and above all get out there and sun yourself!

Now, if you’ll excuse me – as I finish this blog the sun has shone through, so I am off to get my Vitamin D fix for the day!

Don’t forget to email me any questions, queries or topics you want me to cover in my coming blogs.

See you all soon.
Chris Curtis

About ccurtis

Sports Nutritionist - who writes a monthly Rugby Nutrition blog for FindRugbyNow. Also at the moment work alongside West Ham FC Academy, have previously worked for Saracens, Newcastle Falcons and the RFU & England Rugby team Nutritionist. In addition, I run my own company (Total Nutrition Ltd.) that works alongside NHS/public health/education sectors educating communities (both children & adults) about the importance of nutrition. View all posts by ccurtis

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