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Light the way to stronger bones
It has been a long winter on the West Coast of Scotland and I’ve heard from many locals that it has also been the wettest and darkest they can remember.
Certainly I can’t remember many dry days on the bike and my skin has now turned to a kind of translucent pale blue.
But we do appear to have turned a corner as we enter the spring and the days are noticeably lengthening with some better light levels. Something we may not consider is how this can affect our skeletal health and how important some extra rays can be for strong and fracture resistant bones.
Access to sunlight plays a key role in our levels of Vitamin D, in fact its the main way that we synthesise this much needed nutrient. It can be found in dietary sources such as fish and meat but up to 90 per cent will be produced under the skin when ultraviolet rays react with a form of cholesterol.
So why is the ‘sunshine vitamin’ so important for our bones? Think of your skeleton not just as a framework to hang your muscles on but also a back up store of calcium. Most of us will know that calcium is crucial for bone and teeth formation but perhaps not that it is required every time we move our muscles.
Every muscle contraction needs calcium and this will be taken from our bones meaning that we need to keep topping up the store. Vitamin D helps us to absorb both calcium and phosphorus from our food and so maintains the supply of building blocks to our bones.
Low Vitamin D levels are linked with osteoporosis, muscle weakness and depression, and we also see associations with chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. As our season of effective sunlight is concentrated between spring and autumn its really important that we now turn our focus to getting outside and increasing our access to sunlight.
So if sunlight is the drug, what is the prescription I hear you ask? Well, it turns out that we don’t need that much and with many things in life little and often seems to be the way forward. In fact around 10 minutes per day of sunlight on the face, arms and hands will do the job for many.
Once a little more heat arrives a dress or pair of shorts will allow the legs to play their part too, and perhaps best to do that before the midges appear!
Now, we may not get the same light levels as more southern regions but we do have very clean and clear air which allows more UV rays to penetrate our atmosphere in the summer, and we all know how important it is to use sun cream at this time. The problem is that sun cream will compromise our ability to absorb those UV rays which we require but luckily the solution is pretty straight forward.
In summer have five to 10 minutes in the sun without cream and then apply it to protect from long-term exposure and the threat of skin damage. If you can combine your access to sunlight with an active hobby such as hiking, cycling, kayaking or gardening then you benefit from the additional load placed upon the skeletal structure which helps to maintain bone density.
Those who spend long periods of time indoors or are concerned about their Vitamin D levels after the effects of lockdown and isolation could well benefit from some supplementation, but please discuss this with your GP before doing so.
Vitamin D supplementation is widely recommended by the NHS and is considered generally very safe but it can interact with certain medications, so just check in with your doctor first.
Let’s remember that supplements are not substitutes and we still need to get outside where we also benefit from the other physical and mental benefits associated with access to outdoor life.
This now includes many signs that nature is wakening from its winter slumber, a real tonic that we could all do with embracing.
Rob Graham, lead exercise professional, Healthy Options.