The international study examined more than 11,000 people from around the world, and involved NZ researchers.

It found that there was a small but significant benefit to those people who were taking vitamin D supplements as part of the study. The effect of the supplements was greater in people who already had a deficiency in the key vitamin.

What are vitamins anyway?

Vitamins are basically anything crucial that our bodies need to function properly, that we can’t synthesise ourselves, and excluding things like protein, carbohydrates, and other essential nutrients.

Vitamin D is a super-important one of these organic compounds, and it’s not that easy to get hold of, as it turns out. If you’re not getting enough of it, you can end up a victim of this rather nasty little condition, called rickets:

Rickets is a disease that softens the bones, and it affects “immature mammals” – if you’re under 25 or so, that’s you! It used to be a very common illness in young children, but thankfully it’s not really a big deal any longer. In most western countries, in the 1930s, vitamin D was added to milk to eliminate the disease. Well, when we say ‘added’, we mean they basically left milk outside for a while, and then made kids drink it. Read on for why.

Although rickets is now very rare, such illnesses are just the outward sign of someone who is severely deficient in vitamin D. But many people are getting enough of the stuff to prevent serious conditions like rickets, but not enough to stay really healthy. In fact, according to the Ministry of Health, 27 per cent of Kiwis are at least a little bit deficient in vitD, and half (wow!) of babies born in this country have low levels.

How do I get enough vitamin D? And what is ‘enough’?

If you get enough sun, you don’t need to worry about getting rickets, as our bodies produce vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight.

Small amounts of D also occur naturally in some foods, like:

  • oily fish (eg, salmon, tuna, sardines, eel and warehou)
  • milk and milk products
  • eggs
  • liver (Liver?? Really? Has anybody eaten liver since the dark ages?)

Now of course, in this country getting enough sunlight isn’t hard. In fact we need to be very careful about getting too much sun, which is responsible for our high instance of skin cancer. And by the way, the Ministry of Health specifically warns against tanning beds, as they can increase your risk of skin cancer.

And in case you’re curious: no, sitting by a window won’t cut it. Ultraviolet light, the part of the light spectrum that causes vitD production, can’t pass through glass. So get outside, you lump!

The thing is though: should we be taking supplements to bump up our D levels, and will this stop us getting colds? The answer to the first part of the question is complex, mainly because there is currently a big row going on over whether vitamin supplements actually do any good at all, or whether we’re being cynically sold the medical equivalent of magic beans.

The Ministry of Health does have some guidelines. Specifically, if you live south of Nelson/Marlborough, and you spend a lot of time indoors during the winter, you could find yourself depleted of vitD around spring time. If that’s you, maybe do some research, and talk to a health professional about whether supplements might sort you out.

The answer to the second part of the question isn’t complex. No, supplements won’t prevent you getting a cold, as there is no way to prevent getting colds, short of maybe going to live in outer Siberia, and doing your best to avoid the locals.

BUT: the study mentioned above does seem to provide at least some indication that it might be a good idea to increase our vitD levels, because A) that’s just a good thing to do, and B) it might help you get less colds, of less severity.

Whether vitamin supplements are actually doing anyone (who is already in reasonable health) any good seems at this stage to be in the ‘unresolved’ pile. Do your own learning and make up your own mind. You can then call yourself an ‘autodidact’ (your word for the day, google it).

Stay skeptical everybody! Also healthy. And warm. Warm, healthy, and skeptical. Perfect.

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