Oliver Gillie: The world is waking up to the medicinal power of the outdoors


The discovery that vitamin D is vital for the health of 30 or more different tissues and organs of the body has been one of the most significant medical discoveries of the last 10 years but, until very recently, only a few dozen scientists scattered round the world were interested. Most scientists and doctors thought that vitamin D was important only for the healthy bones.

But patient laboratory work has shown that vitamin D is essential for the normal development of many specialised cells and has a vital role in a process called apoptosis - the programmed death of cells that have finished their useful life.

Insufficient vitamin D is becoming recognised as the most important risk factor for cancer and other chronic diseases after smoking, obesity and alcohol.

At least 60 per cent of people in the UK obtain insufficient vitamin D - and 10 per cent are so deficient that they are at risk of severe bone disease. Food provides most people in the UK with less than a quarter of the minimum requirement of vitamin D for health. Even if a typical vitamin pill is taken as well that leaves more than half of our vitamin D requirement that can only be obtained by exposure of the skin to the sun.

For six months of the year, the sun is not strong enough in northern Europe to enable the skin to make any vitamin D. More than ever before, the pattern of modern life keeps us indoors, out of the summer sun, or in cars, while sunscreen chemicals, common in cosmetics as well as in special creams, block the ultra-violet rays which are needed for vitamin D production.

Urgent measures are needed to correct our national deficiency of vitamin D, especially in winter. Some people may take a winter holiday in the Caribbean, Canary Islands or north Africa where they can sunbathe without suncream, taking care not to burn, and obtain a useful boost to health. Others may take a strong vitamin D pill (25 microgram or 1000 IUs) which can be bought from the internet.

But only vigorous government action will improve the vitamin D levels of most people. More foods need to be fortified with vitamin D but that will probably need complicated agreements with other EU countries which will take time and political will. The greatest immediate gains in vitamin D could be obtained by a new policy recommending the public to sunbathe whenever possible, wearing as few clothes as possible while taking care not to burn. Scientific evidence now suggests that it is burning that increases the risk of skin cancer while exposure without burning seems to protect against cancer.

However Cancer Research UK have been reluctant to change their government-sponsored SunSmart policy which was developed in sunny Australia and is totally unsuited to the British climate. It recommends staying in shade in the middle of the day and wearing sunscreen which, in effect, prevents most ultra-violet light from reaching the skin.

I warned Cancer Research UK more than a year ago that their advice may be causing more cancer than it is preventing. Even Australian authorities now recommend that people spend a few minutes in the sun before covering up. It is time for the UK government to follow suit and encourage people here to sunbathe safely to reduce their cancer risk.

Oliver Gillie is the author of Sunlight Robbery: Health benefits of sunlight are denied by current public health policy in the UK www.healthresearchforum.org.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next

In Sickness and in Health: A night out to show I’m still Rebecca as well as a carer

Rebecca Armstrong
Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman leaving The High Court  

Lutfur Rahman has devalued the struggle for racial justice and equality, and I hate him for it

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions