Last updated: 4 December 2020
Vitamin D is important for our health, particularly as we may all be out and about less than usual at the moment – but are newer formulations such as gummies and sprays all equally as effective, and what’s the cheapest option?
We’ve looked into the pros and cons of different formulations to uncover the best way to get your daily dose of this vital vitamin.
Why is vitamin D so important?
A vitamin D deficiency can have a detrimental impact on your bone, muscle and joint health as well as immune health. It’s quite common in the UK as we don’t get as much sunlight as some other countries, and it’s hard to get enough from your diet.
At the beginning of lockdown Public Health England (PHE) advised everyone above the age of one to take a 10 microgram (mcg or µg) supplement of vitamin D each day.
That’s because while we’d usually be getting vitamin D from the sun at this time of year, at the moment many people are at home more than usual so are at higher risk of deficiency.
Update for 4 December 2020: The UK government has announced it will supply free vitamin D supplements to those most at risk of coronavirus in the winter months. People on the clinically extremely vulnerable list will be contacted and can opt for a supply delivered to their door, with deliveries due to start in January.
Coronavirus: the truth about boosting your immune system – we explain the facts behind the headlines
Vitamin D supplements: what type is right for you and what’s the cost difference?
There are loads of vitamin D supplements to choose from, including tablets you swallow, chewable tablets, jellies and gummies, effervescent tablets, oral sprays and even teabags.
Alternatives such as sprays and gummies have gained popularity recently as they are easier to swallow, but they can be much pricier, which is worth bearing in mind if you’re taking the supplement daily for a number of months.
Prices can vary from 3p to 30p per dose. The cheapest options are own-brand vitamin D tablets: Boots and Superdrug versions cost less than 3p for a daily dose.
Sprays cost around 6p a day, gummies around 14p and drops around 17p. Higher-dose effervescent tablets can cost 30p per dose.
Vitamin D spray vs tablets: are sprays better?
Oral sprays may be a preferable way for you to get your daily dose if you don’t find swallowing tablets easy, but this is the only real difference.
The theory of whether sprays are better absorbed by the body was tested in a randomised, controlled trial (the gold standard of testing whether treatments work) and published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2019.
In the study, healthy volunteers were given either a 75mcg vitamin D capsule, a 75mcg vitamin D spray or a placebo over a 6-week period and blood concentrations of vitamin D were tested at regular intervals.
The results showed significant rises in blood concentrations of vitamin D in both treatment arms (the people receiving supplementation via either method) compared to those in the placebo group.
The researchers concluded that sprays are just as effective as tablets – but not that they were better.
Vitamin D gummies and drinks – watch out for sugar and salt
Efficacy isn’t the only consideration when choosing supplements, for many it’s about something they can stomach on a daily basis.
The increased popularity of supplements in gummy or spray form is partly down to supplement fatigue – people don’t generally enjoy having to down lots of large pills on a daily basis if they can avoid it.
In the above study many volunteers said they preferred the vitamin D spray for ease of use and taste, and for plenty of people this may be worth paying a bit more for.
Chewable tablets and gummies can also offer an alternative to traditional tablets. While the evidence shows the vitamins in different forms are equally well absorbed there other considerations.
Gummies and chewables often contain sugar, in fact many examples we looked at had sugar listed as their main ingredient.
The three top ingredients in Bioglan VitaGummies are malt syrup, sugar and glucose syrup – three different forms of sugar.
And the top two ingredients in Vitabiotics Wellkid Peppa Pig vitamin D jellies are glucose syrup and sugar.
We already consume more sugar than we should and gummy and jelly supplements add to this, so this is worth bearing in mind.
Gummies can also encourage a fondness for sweets among children and there have been reports of children viewing them as sweets and over-consuming them.
Effervescent vitamin D formulas
Another form of vitamin D supplement is an effervescent tablet which is dissolved in water and consumed as a drink.
Like many other effervescent medicines and supplements these contain sodium, too much of which increases your risk of high blood pressure.
We tend to consume too much salt (sodium chloride) as it is and the sodium in this and other medicines can easily push us further over the recommended maximum daily intake.
If you have high blood pressure you should avoid all effervescent tablets that contain sodium.
How much vitamin D do you need?
We can get most of the vitamins and minerals we need from our diets. However this isn’t the case with vitamin D and this is why we need to rely on supplements (and the sun).
The NHS recommends 10mcg a day, but there are many supplements available that contain much more than this, sometimes up to 50mcg in a daily dose.
Taking high-dose vitamin D supplements is not recommended, this is because it can build up in the body. Taking too much vitamin D over a long time period can cause a build-up of calcium in your body which can weaken your bones and damage your heart and kidneys.
If your doctor has diagnosed you with a vitamin D deficiency they might prescribe a course of high dose vitamin D supplementation but this will be for a short time.
So, don’t be tempted to over-do it, as you might do more harm than good.
Does it matter when you take vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin so it’s best to take your supplement at meal times with food.
Coronavirus and vitamin D: does it help?
In June the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) reviewed the existing evidence around vitamin D and respiratory tract infections in the context of COVID-19.
They concluded that it didn’t show vitamin D supplements were beneficial in preventing or treating COVID-19 or respiratory tract infections.
However, it is known that vitamin D supports the normal function of your immune system. So if you do catch coronavirus, your recovery might be easier if you’re not deficient.
More recently, a new US study backed this up, finding that patients with healthy vitamin D levels were less likely to experience complications or die from COVID-19.
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This story was originally published on 18 June 2020, but has been updated to reflect new government guidance since.