Sun-starved Britons face increased risk of cancer

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Pale-faced Britons who do not get enough sun during the winter months are left with insufficient levels of vitamin D, increasing their risk of cancer, diabetes and bone diseases, experts said yesterday.

Pale-faced Britons who do not get enough sun during the winter months are left with insufficient levels of vitamin D, increasing their risk of cancer, diabetes and bone diseases, experts said yesterday.

Grey skies and short days from October to March mean 60 per cent of the population are deficient in the vitamin by the end of the winter, a government survey has shown. Experts have called for urgent consideration to be given to fortifying staple foods such as bread and milk, or boosting levels of the vitamin in supplements.

Vitamin D, produced by the action of sunlight on the skin, is the only vitamin that humans make themselves and is essential for the health of the skin and bones. Graham Bentham, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, said vitamin D was important in preventing a wider range of diseases than had previously been thought.

"We know its role in preventing rickets in children and osteomalcia in adults [which causes weak bones]. But there is accumulating evidence that it is also protective against some cancers - of the colon, breast, prostate and ovary - and against autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes. It may also reduce blood pressure, which would help prevent heart attacks and strokes."

Recommended levels of the vitamin have not been set because it has been assumed that casual exposure to sunlight would produce sufficient amounts. But that assumption had never been scientifically studied and was now being challenged, Professor Bentham said. "The survey showed that a substantial proportion of the population have levels of vitamin D by the end of the winter that are insufficient. They are not low enough to cause osteomalcia but they may be bad for the bones and increase the risk of other diseases."

The simplest way of creating vitamin D is to go out in the sun but Professor Bentham, speaking after a briefing on vitamin D organised by the Science Media Centre, said that was a "very damaging idea".

"We know there has been a rise in skin cancer because many people are going out in the sun too much. We need to work very carefully with the cancer charities to get a balanced message across. It is a bit odd to ask people to binge on the sun in the summer to get them through the winter," he said.

Another option was to eat more oily fish - such as salmon, trout and sardines - which is the richest natural source of the vitamin. Margarine and breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin D in the UK but there could be a case for fortifying milk, as in the US, and bread, Professor Bentham said. However, some people were sensitive to the vitamin and could be at risk.

Professor Brian Wharton, of the Institute of Child Health in London, said there were reports of rickets making a comeback, especially among Asian and African-Caribbean children.

He said an overreaction to "cover-up" campaigns against skin cancer was partly responsible for the lack of vitamin D. "There's no doubt that if you wear sunscreen, vitamin D conversion goes down," he said. "I'm certainly not promoting sun 'bingeing' but we do need some sensible use of the sun, and we've been swinging too strongly against it."

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