• Dr Muller says the science is out on whether it's beneficial to take vitamin D supplements to bump up your vitamin D if you aren't deficient. (Getty)Source: Getty
If a doctor hasn't instructed you to take vitamin D tablets, then you may be taking pills you don't really need.
Yasmin Noone

9 Aug 2018 - 10:34 AM  UPDATED 3 Sep 2018 - 3:33 PM

Although it feels warm and cosy to stay indoors on a cold winter day, we may be doing so at the risk of not getting enough vitamin D from sunlight.

As vitamin D is essential for the body to absorb calcium effectively, which is important for bone health and muscle function, severe vitamin D deficiencies could have serious ramifications. Research shows that vitamin D deficiency is linked to serious conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

But does that mean that we should all be taking vitamin D supplements over winter?

The answer, according to scientist Dr Derek Muller – host of SBS’s Vitamania – is, it's complicated.

“So it’s interesting to hear some people say that ‘everyone should be taking a vitamin d supplement’. Yet meanwhile, the science is not settled.”

Dr Muller tells SBS that vitamin D supplements have not yet been conclusively proven to effectively treat or prevent a vitamin D deficiency in every person.

“If you are just taking vitamin D supplements because you think you are a little low or you want to bump up your vitamin D levels to be a bit higher than what they are currently, well we are not sure that is beneficial,” Dr Muller tells SBS, ahead of the airing of Vitamania on SBS on Sunday 12 August at 8.30pm. 

Dr Derek Muller sunbathing, while filming Vitamania in Norwary, to get his daily dose of vitamin D.

“In fact, there are massive studies going on globally which are looking at whether a taking a supplement can improve health outcomes in healthy people or not. There are two studies taking place in the US and Australia at the moment. The findings aren’t in yet.

“So it’s interesting to hear some people say that ‘everyone should be taking a vitamin D supplement’. Yet meanwhile, the science is not settled.”

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In the absence of settled science, Dr Muller recommends sticking to a precautionary principle – “try to have a regular diet [with some vitamin D rich foods] and have a little bit of sun”.

Foods that include vitamin D are margarine fortified with vitamin D, herring, mackerel and eggs.

“But, if the science does end up saying we all need a supplement, then after that you can make an informed decision.”

Salmon steak, fortified cereals (cornflakes), glass of milk and egg yolk, all sources of Vitamin D.

Can you have too much vitamin D?  

If you are not vitamin D deficient and consume more than you need via supplementation, it is possible to reach toxic levels.

As depicted in Vitamania, excess levels of vitamin D caused baby Elizabeth Jackson in the US to come dangerously close to kidney failure. A homemade, organic formula that contained toxic levels of vitamin D led to high levels of calcium in Elizabeth’s blood. The child’s health was later restored but she came close to potential death. Both Elizabeth’s vitamin D and calcium levels are now at safe levels.

So how do I know if need more vitamin D?

Dr Muller stresses that if a blood test shows that you have a vitamin D deficiency and your doctor recommends that you take a vitamin D supplement, follow your doctor’s orders.

It is also advised to consult a doctor if you face a higher risk of a vitamin D deficiency for a medical reason. For example, nursing home residents who may not get a lot of sunlight, people who are frail or are hospitalised for extended periods of time and babies who are breastfed by mothers who are low in vitamin D may all face a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency.

“Medical doctors are the best qualified to say what any individual person should do for their health. If you want to take a vitamin D pill, you should talk to your doctor.”

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According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the majority of Australian adults had sufficient levels (>50 nmol/L) of vitamin D in 2011–12.

“Just under one in four (23 per cent), or four million adults, had a vitamin D deficiency, which comprised 17 per cent with a mild deficiency, six per cent with a moderate deficiency and less than one per cent with a severe deficiency,” the Australian Health Survey results on the ABS site states.  

“Overall, rates of vitamin D deficiency were very similar for both men and women.”

Yet, a study published in 2014 found that Australians are spending massive amounts of money on vitamin D supplements, “a proportion of which may potentially be unnecessary”.

“Further information is needed regarding the reasons individuals are taking supplements and the effect of such supplementation on serum vitamin D levels,” the study reads.

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To prevent unnecessary use of vitamin D containing supplements, the study’s authors recommend the implementation of vitamin D supplementation guidelines.

Such guidelines, the authors say, could also help people with a proven vitamin D deficiency, advising them on the correct dose required to achieve vitamin D repletion.

Vitamania premieres Sunday 12 August, 8.30pm on SBS. The documentary will be available after broadcast via SBS On DemandJoin the conversation @Vitamaniamovie #Vitamaniamovie.

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