From in-utero to elderly, vitamin D is essential to overall health and body function. It helps our bodies absorb calcium and build strong bones. Also, it may help reduce our risk of certain ailments and diseases. Some experts say vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins, but, unfortunately, for many of us in the U.S., we aren’t getting enough.
Marcia Woodburn, nurse practitioner with Banner – University Medical Center Tucson and National Osteoporosis Foundation Ambassador, answered some of our questions about the importance of vitamin D.
Why is vitamin D important?
Vitamin D is helpful to increasing the body’s ability to absorb calcium from the GI system. Having appropriate amounts of vitamin D helps ensure our bodies maintain adequate levels of calcium and phosphate, which allow for proper mineralization of bone. Vitamin D may also be helpful in aiding the immune system and preventing certain types of cancers and other diseases.
What happens if you are deficient?
A vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults, both of which are a softening of the bones. In adults, osteomalacia may create a disposition to fractures.
Calcium and vitamin D are considered building blocks for healthy bones. Over time, chronic vitamin D deficiency and associated calcium deficiency may lead to development of osteoporosis, or porous bones. As vitamin D aids in the body’s absorption of calcium from the GI track, it is generally accepted that getting enough vitamin D can help improve bone health and reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis.
Many studies looking at the benefit of vitamin D on bone health have included combined calcium and vitamin D supplementation, so knowing the exact benefit of vitamin D is difficult to determine, Woodburn explained. However, taking vitamin D and calcium together has been shown to slightly improve bone density in postmenopausal women and older men.
Special note: Please remember before starting a supplement, it is important to talk to your provider about how much is right for you.
Who is most at risk?
- People with limited exposure to sunlight
- Older persons
- Those who are overweight or obese
- People with malabsorption conditions such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or those who have undergone gastric bypass
- Those with liver or kidney problems
- Infants who are only breast-fed
- People with darker skin. They may produce less vitamin D when exposed to the sun; however, the health impacts of this are unclear. Most people with darker skin are also found to be less likely to develop osteoporosis or fracture.
Where can I get my vitamin D from?
You can get your vitamin D from a number of sources. These include:
UV light from the Sun:
According to the National Institutes of Health, most people meet at least some of their vitamin D needs through exposure to sunlight.
However, too much sun exposure can lead to skin cancer. How much your body makes depends on the time of day, the season and your geographic location to the equator where the sun is the strongest, and your altitude is a factor. The pigmentation of your skin also impacts how much vitamin D you make.
Sunblock, though helpful in protecting your skin from the harmful effects of the sun, can reduce how much vitamin D your body makes. For example, SPF 8 may block production of vitamin D almost completely. “Supplements of vitamin D are a helpful way to still get the vitamin D you need while using sunblock to protect your skin," Woodburn said.
Eating Certain Foods:
Woodburn said there are very few foods containing vitamin D, so it is usually difficult to get your full daily recommendation from diet alone. Fatty fish, like salmon and swordfish, have vitamin D, as well as many fortified foods, such as milk, cereals, soymilk and infant formulas.
Because it's difficult to get all the vitamin D you need from food, most people need short-time sun exposures and/or daily vitamin D supplements. You can get vitamin D supplements over the counter. Some vitamin D supplements are available only by prescription and are given to people who are more severely vitamin D deficient.
How much does my body need?
“That depends,” Woodburn said. “The amount of recommended supplement may vary by provider and is also typically patient-specific, given differences in things like disease processes, lifestyle factors or metabolism. There are also many ongoing studies, including those here at Banner Health/University of Arizona, investigating how much vitamin D is optimum for health.”
Woodburn recommends speaking with your provider about what may be right for you, but you can also review the recommended dietary allowances by the National Osteoporosis Foundation. “Your doctor will check your blood levels and recommend if you need a supplement or not,” Woodburn said.
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