Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Let The Sunshine In

Rickets, osteoporosis, diabetes, breast cancer, bowel cancer, multiple sclerosis, rotten teeth and depression may all be caused or aggravated by one single factor: a lack of sunshine.

When ultraviolet light from the sun reaches your skin it triggers the process by which the human body manufactures its own supply of vitamin D - and it's a deficiency of this essential nutrient which has links to all of these health problems.

Even though there are good dietary sources of vitamin D, few people in this country manage to get enough to make up for the lack of sunshine during the winter. I analyse the diets of hundreds of my patients each year and hardly ever find one that provides the recommended daily intake of 10 microgrammes (400 international units) of vitamin D per day. Even the healthiest of eaters seldom manage even half this amount.

Vitamin D is essential for bone formation as it is part of the calcium absorption system. Lack of this vitamin causes rickets in children and bone disorders in adults. The action of ultraviolet light on the skin produces vitamin D. Those at special risk are the elderly and other groups who get little fresh air and daylight exposure. Young girls and women in the Asian community are often at risk due to traditional clothing, diet and lifestyle.

You can get the 10 microgrammes that are essential from 1 teaspoon of cod liver oil, 45 g of herring or kipper, 55 g mackerel, 80 g canned salmon or tuna, 135 g canned sardines. Eggs, full fat milk, yogurt and fortified margarines are also reasonable sources.

But food is not a total replacement for sunshine, yet thanks to the skin cancer scares most people now regard the sun as a devil rather than the God it's been for so many of our ancient civilisations. Of course no-one should lie out in the sunshine and bake, but the absurd fanaticism about avoiding sunlight is having disastrous consequences. A Department of Health study of nearly three thousand children revealed the terrifying fact that 16 percent of boys between 15 and 18 had such low levels of vitamin D that they were at real risk of rickets – a disease which causes crippling deformity of bones, late walking in babies, knock knees, bow legs, and physical deformity.

Adults may develop a condition called osteomalacia with pain in the ribs, spine, pelvis and legs, weak muscles and eventually leading to fractures. All this because vitamin D is essential for your body to absorb calcium. A major consequence of low vitamin D is the long term risk of osteoporosis, especially in women after the menopause.

Lifestyle is also a factor and children who spend all day in classrooms and most of their leisure time in front of a computer or TV screen get little fresh air and consequently minimal exposure to the sun. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and it can be stored up in the body during the summer time and available for slow release during the dark sunless days of winter. Just one bright day spent digging in the garden or walking in the countryside can give you a boost of 10,000 IU of vitamin D in perfect safety.

The links between sunlight and cancer are very real but it's the result of overexposure, of sunburn, of a life of outdoor work in blistering sunshine. Even being in the shade on a bright sunny day produces a significant rise in vitamin D levels, as does an afternoon outside on an overcast sunny day – but you have to pick the right time of year.

From the end of October to the end of March there are virtually none of the vitamin D forming ultraviolet wavelengths in Britain. In the rest of the year the most effective time is between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and the value of daylight is greatest in the south and goes down the further north you travel.

Many people are now aware of the links between sunshine, vitamin D, calcium and healthy bones, but some of the other problems caused by sun depravation may come as a surprise.

Dr. Barbara Boucher studied a large group of Asian women at the Royal London Hospital in London's East End. Diabetes is five times more common in Asians than in the white population in the UK and she found that maintaining an adequate intake of vitamin D could make a significant difference to the long- term health of the Asian community - especially in women who spend most of their time indoors and are completely covered when they go out - and in the general elderly population, and even in vegetarians. Adequate levels of vitamin D have a direct effect in reducing the risk of non-insulin dependent diabetes.

Even the risk of getting multiple sclerosis appears to be reduced for those who live in the sun. In dismal Britain you have a hundred times' more chance of getting MS than if your house were on the Equator.

Professor Graham Bentham from the University of East Anglia. believes that vitamin D is the key factor. Those living with plenty of sunlight always have high levels and he believes his theory is confirmed by the low incidence of MS in Icelandic and Norwegian people. They suffer months of darkness with no sunshine, but their diet is very rich in oily fish like salmon and herring, which contain large quantities of this essential vitamin.

It's time to rehabilitate the sun. We need its rays for protection and good health – breast and bowel cancers are much more common where there is least sunlight or the worst smog pollution, which blocks the passage of vital ultraviolet rays.

Covering yourself in sun block, wearing sun-protective make-up and a large floppy hat every time you go out for 10 minutes is madness. Frequent short exposures to sunlight, an hour under a shady tree in the garden or a spring afternoon sitting in the park while the kids kick a football or play on the swings, is something we all need. And that's very different from two hours baking on a Mediterranean beach in the middle of the day.

In the hysteria of skin cancer panic, we mustn't lose sight of the fact that the sun's rays are the source of all life, a bringer of joy and happiness and provider of the vital vitamin D. They can even reduce PMS and boost male testosterone. Just ask Shirley Valentine.

Try This Vitamin D rich and Calming Recipe

Whitebait bursting with calcium and vitamin D and a wonderful chocolate fondue with a hint of the tropics

At the end of a long and stressful day, when the world has conspired against you and your nerves are jangling, nothing could be better than sharing a glass of chilled white while you prepare this quick, easy and soothing dish which will set you up for an evening of peaceful relaxation and a good night's sleep.

Oats, a favourite old wives' calming food, soothing calcium and vitamin D from the whitebait and the peace-inducing aromatic oils in basil all make this an ideal bone building meal.

450g/1lb whitebait
Rapeseed oil - enough to fill a deep frying pan to a depth of 1cm/half an inch
175g/60z fine oatmeal seasoned with salt, pepper and 2 tspns dried dill
150m/5 fl oz good mayonnaise
20 basil leaves, finely torn
1 lemon, quartered

1 Wash whitebait, dry thoroughly and roll in seasoned oatmeal
2 Heat oil and fry in batches, keeping earlier fish warm, until slightly crisp - 3-4 mins
3 Mix basil into mayonnaise and put into two small ramekins
4 Serve fish garnished with lemon and with sauce for dipping


Cod Liver Oil

This is not only the richest of all sources but has a wide range of anti-inflammatory properties that help with arthritis and other joint and muscle pains. There are now products available that are taste and odour free like Neutra Taste from Seven Seas.
210 mcg / 100 g
Percentage of daily requirement: 105% from average teaspoonful
Vitamin D score: 10/10

Herrings And Kippers
20 mcg / 100 g
Percentage of daily requirement: 240% from average 120 g portion
Vitamin D score: 10/10

Smoked Mackerel
8 mcg / 100 g
Percentage of daily requirement: 120% from average 150 g portion
Vitamin D score: 10/10

Sardines – Fresh Grilled
12.3 mcg / 100 g
Percentage of daily requirement: 148% from average 120 g portion – 3 sardines
Vitamin D score: 10/10

Sardines – Canned In Tomato Sauce
Canned sardines are a great bone booster as they're not only rich in vitamin D but they're a great source of calcium as long as you eat the bones which have already been softened during processing.
8 mcg / 100 g
Percentage of daily requirement: 112% from average 140 g portion
Vitamin D score: 10/10

Grilled Trout
11 mcg / 100 g
Percentage of daily requirement: 165% from average 115 g portion
Vitamin D score: 10/10

Grilled Salmon Steak
9.6 mcg / 100 g
Percentage of daily requirement: 115% from average 120 g portion
Vitamin D score: 10/10

1.75 mcg / 100 g
Percentage of daily requirement: 18% from two boiled eggs
Vitamin D score: 2/10


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