Vitamin D is the talk of the town. It’s the sunshine vitamin that should be easy enough to obtain. Yet, many are still deficient in it, even in places like Southern California where it’s warm and sunny for much of the year. Why is this? How much vitamin D should we be getting? And can we get it from the foods we eat? Let’s dive into these questions and more!
What is it?
I won’t bore you with a technical definition. Vitamin D is both a nutrient that we get through our diets, as well as a hormone that our bodies make. Our bodies need it for building and maintaining healthy bones. Otherwise, our bones may become thin, soft and brittle. The primary component in bone is calcium. The body can only absorb calcium in the presence of vitamin D. It also regulates other cellular functions.
The good stuff
Vitamin D may help to reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis (a disease where the immune system damages the protective covering of nerves), decrease the chances of getting heart disease (high blood pressure, stroke and heart failure), reduce the likelihood of severe illnesses, and support immune health. It may also help to regulate your mood and decrease the risk of depression, while also potentially supporting weight loss. That’s some good stuff!
The reality is that most people in the U.S. don’t get enough vitamin D. This is largely due to not getting enough sun exposure. Our culture of working long hours indoors is the likely culprit. A vitamin D deficiency may manifest as: tiredness, aches, and pains; severe bone or muscle pain or weakness; or stress fractures (particularly in your legs, pelvis and hips).
Can you eat it?
Vitamin D is naturally present in some foods like: fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, etc.), organ meats (like liver), & egg yolks. The only vegan source of vitamin D is mushrooms, which produces vitamin D2, whereas animal sources produce D3. While D2 helps raise vitamin D levels in the blood, it isn’t as effective in doing so compared to D3. As we can see, food sources of vitamin D are quite limited.
If you’ve seen vitamin D listed on the labels of foods like milk, orange juice, or cereal (to name a few), this means that it has been added and that the food in question never contained vitamin D to begin with. This has been done to help us get this important nutrient as even natural sources of D3 are hard to get from diet alone, even if eating large quantities of the foods above! Unfortunately, most experts say that our bodies don’t absorb individual nutrients that have been added to foods compared to the natural occurrence of that same vitamin. As a result, we may not get the same nutritional benefits from foods fortified with vitamin D.
The sun is the best source of vitamin D. But how much exposure should you get? And what about concerns like skin cancer? It’s recommend that you get at somewhere between 10-30 minutes of mid-day sunlight, several times per week. Exposure time will depend on the darkness of your skin. That is, those with darker skin will need more sunlight. Leave as much of your skin exposed to the sun as possible for best results. Remember, you can still get vitamin D on even the gloomiest day! A general rule is that your body will make all the vitamin D you need per day in about half the time it takes for your skin to burn.
You may work inside all day, live where it’s cold for much of the year, so getting vitamin D the old-fashioned way may not be practical for you. In that case, it’s best to supplement. But how much should you take? Well, that depends on your current vitamin D level. Schedule an appointment with your doctor and ask to get your vitamin D level tested. You will need to supplement more if your levels are lower, and less if they’re higher. Your lab work may indicate that a vitamin D level of 20-30 ng/L is sufficient. I beg to differ. From the research I’ve done, 80-100 ng/L tends to be a better range to aim for.
Believe it or not, you can overdose on vitamin D. Don’t worry, it’s not like overdosing on heroin and it isn’t caused by getting too much sun. This refers to taking too much in the form of supplements. Vitamin D toxicity may show up as: nausea, vomiting, weakness, frequent urination and increased thirst, apathy, abdominal pain, confusion, etc. It can also progress to pain in your bones and kidney problems, as in the formation of calcium stones. Always follow the recommendation of your doctor and healthcare practitioner(s) in dosing a vitamin D supplement.
How can you get more vitamin D this summer?