Importance of Vitamin D in Pregnancy

THERE’S more than one reason to bemoan the damp UK summer – because the overcast weather might be harming your body’s natural vitamin D levels.

Here Reproductive Health Group’s nutritionist and care co-ordinator Celia Cooper explains why this so-called ‘sunshine vitamin’ is so important for both pregnant women and those breastfeeding.

And if you haven’t yet booked your annual holiday, now might be the time….

Celia says:

“When you sit back on your sun lounger and soak up a few rays, you might be more focused on rest and relaxation.

But there’s actually a little miracle of science taking place on the surface of your skin, and you probably didn’t even realise it was even happening.

When UVB rays from the sun hit your warm flesh, it kickstarts a unique chemical reaction.

A cholesterol, called ‘7-dehydrocholesterol’, absorbs that radiation and converts it into something called a ‘previtamin’.

And when that previtamin travels through your bloodstream it eventually lands at your liver and kidneys, who work their magic by creating vitamin D, which your body can then use.

The vast majority – around 90 per cent – of the vitamin D we get comes from sunlight.

It’s not entirely clear as to how long, precisely, we should be exposing our skin – minus suncream – to the sun every day, as everyone’s skin types differ. But it’s thought that between 15 and 30 minutes is ample for most. It should go without saying that you should also avoid your skin turning red or burning.

Yet in the winter months, we rely on what reserves we’ve built up during the warmer periods of the year to get us through the dark days.

So what happens when the UK suffers a damp squib of a summer, as we are now?

First thing’s first, getting enough vitamin D is vitally important if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

Vitamin D is needed to help the baby develop its bones and low levels can increase the risk of blood pressure problems and diabetes developing during the pregnancy.

Recent scientific study has backed-up this fact.

Last month researchers from the University of Surrey found that pregnant women who don’t get enough vitamin D are more likely to have children who ‘suffer from poor social development and motor skills before they reach school age’.

Those rather startling stats came from a study of 7,000 mother-and-child pairs and which analysed youngsters aged around 2½ years, watching how successful they were at kicking a ball, balancing and jumping and their usage of fine muscles, including holding a pencil and building a tower with bricks.

The same study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found Vitamin D insufficiency in pregnancy was also found to affect a child’s social development at age 3½ years.

At present, vitamin D is not measured routinely in pregnancy.

There also aren’t many foods containing vitamin D, but it is added to all infant formula milk, as well as some breakfast cereals, fat spreads and non-dairy milk alternatives.

So, the bottom line is that those of us who don’t reach the required amount of vitamin D are advised to consider taking a supplement.

Other ways in which a mother-to-be can increase vitamin D intake is eating love for oily fish, like salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines – though be careful to eat no more than two portions of oily fish per week during pregnancy. Eggs, provided their thoroughly cooked, can also provide vitamin D.

You can also get vitamin supplements containing vitamin D free of charge if you are pregnant or breastfeeding and qualify for the NHS Healthy Start scheme.

The programme provides vouchers to pregnant women and families which can be used to buy milk and plain fresh and frozen vegetables at local shops.

Coupons can also be exchanged for free vitamins.

But whatever you do, don’t take too much – as Vitamin D can actually be toxic in very high doses, causing too much calcium to build up in the body and weakening the bones and damaging the kidneys and the heart.

NHS guidelines state all adults, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, need to supplement 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day (Around 400 IU, or ‘International Unit’)

Babies up to the age of one year need around 8.5-10mcg of vitamin D a day.

Children from the age of one year and adults need 10mcg of vitamin D a day.

Meanwhile from about late March/early April to the end of September, the majority of people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight on their skin without having to take a supplement.”

10 foods that contain vitamin D – The NHS says RDA is 10 mcg, which is 400 IU.

Foods rich in vitamin D

  • Mackerel (13.6 mcg in 85g)
  • Egg yolks (1 mcg per egg)
  • Canned sardines (6.75 mcg in 100g)
  • Shiitake mushrooms (0.7mcg in 100g)
  • Salmon (10 mcg in 300g)
  • Yogurt (2.5 mcg in 170g)
  • Almond milk (2.5 mcg in 230ml)
  • Orange juice (3.4 mcg in 1 cup)
  • Fortified breakfast cereals (1.25 – 2.5 mcg in 0.75–1 cup)
  • Margarine (0.67 mcg IU in 1 teaspoon)