With all the dreary weather we’ve been having and the winter months upon us, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take some time to discuss the importance of vitamin D. Also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” we get most of our vitamin D from the sun. When we are exposed to sunlight, our skin, liver and kidneys work to synthesize vitamin D and convert it to the usable form, D3, which acts actually more like a hormone in our bodies than a vitamin.
Most people are familiar with vitamin D for it’s role in bone health, as it increases the absorption of calcium in the GI tract and maintains blood levels of calcium and phosphorus. So with deficiency, we see soft, brittle bones and diseases like rickets and osteomalacia. So what is the adequate amount of vitamin D? The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D is 400-800 IU based on age, gender and life stage. But, is this enough to reap all the health benefits of vitamin D? The answer is probably not. You may have had your vitamin D level tested and been told your level is normal which would mean a blood level somewhere between 20-40. However, research suggests that for optimal health, your vitamin D level should be closer to 50-80. This is not just for bone building, but to reap the many benefits associated with vitamin D including healthy brain function, reduced inflammation and prevention of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis in addition to overall immune health which is so important during this time of year.
The bottom line is most of us today don’t get enough vitamin D for a number of reasons. We work indoors, wear sunscreen when outdoors and spend less time outdoors all together. Many people live too far from the equator to get adequate amounts of vitamin D from the sun even during the summer months. Additionally, if you are dark complected or over 50, your skin is less efficient at synthesizing vitamin D so you may get a lot of sunlight but still not achieve optimal blood levels.
Think you’re getting enough through diet? Think again! There are actually very few dietary sources of vitamin D most of which include fortified milk and yogurt, eggs, beef liver, some mushrooms and oily fish like wild caught salmon, mackerel and sardines. However, to get the amount needed for optimal health, you would need to be drinking around 20-25 cups of fortified milk or eating about 12 oz of salmon a day.
We know that sun protection is an important part of self-care and getting adequate daily vitamin D from the sun would mean faster aging and possibly increased skin cancer risk, if it was even possible at all in this area of the country, especially during the winter, so, what is the best way to get enough vitamin D? First, I recommend that everyone get their vitamin D level tested. This is called a 25 OH Vitamin D test. It is a simple blood test that most primary care doctors will do without hesitation if you ask, but it isn’t routine at most offices. If your level is less than 50 or on the lower end of the 50-80 range, you would likely benefit from supplementing 2000-4000 IU of vitamin D3 daily. If your level is below 40, you may need more initially to bring it up. Also, since sunlight is scarce during the winter, most people with levels in the optimal range would benefit from a supplement of at least 1000 IU daily during these months. It is important to note that with vitamin D, a vitamin K2 supplement is necessary for optimal bone building and cardiovascular health as vitamin K2 helps drive calcium into cells. Vitamin D supplements come in both liquid and gel cap forms and some, like this one, provide vitamin D and K2 together.
Still not sure what to do? Let one of our registered dietitians help you ensure you’re getting enough vitamin D this winter!