We all know that micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are important for health and each of them is important for different functions in the body. But vitamin D is special.
For those of us in northern climates, it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from the sun alone. And, while severe vitamin D deficiency is rare, most of us have lower than optimal levels.
Why should we be concerned? Why should we work to increase our levels of vitamin D? Read on for a discussion of how much of this critical fat-soluble vitamin we need and why, and how you can get enough.
The three ways to vitamin D are:
- exposure to the sun,
- consuming vitamin D containing food,
- and through supplements.
Why is vitamin D important?
Vitamin D helps us absorb calcium from our food and acts like a hormone to help us build strong bones. Vitamin D can also help with immune function, cellular growth, and help to prevent mood imbalances such as depression and seasonal affective disorder.
While significant deficiency of vitamin D can lead to bone diseases like osteomalacia, sub-optimal vitamin D levels can also increase your risk of heart disease, autoimmune diseases, certain cancers, and even death.
How much vitamin D do we need?
To ensure you get adequate amounts of vitamin D, you should implement a combination of the three vitamin D sources mentioned above each day. I’ll briefly discuss how you can do that…
How to safely get vitamin D from the sun
Your skin makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to the sun; that’s why it’s referred to as the “sunshine vitamin“. How much vitamin D your skin can make depends on many things. Location, season, cloud coverage, clothing and sunscreen use, all affect the amount of vitamin D your skin can produce from sun exposure.
One standard recommendation is to get about 5–30 minutes of sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen. While we always want to avoid sunburns, there are reasons why many of us are not getting sufficient exposure. These include:
- The shift in most occupations that keeps us primarily indoors.
- As we age, the skin makes less vitamin D, so older individuals are at risk of deficiency.
- In some locations and during some seasons of the year the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough to give us the exposure we need.
So, it’s important to look at other ways to obtain vitamin D.
Can I get enough vitamin D from food?
Food sources of vitamin D3 include fatty fish, liver, and egg yolks. And some mushrooms make vitamin D2 when they’re exposed to the sun.
Some foods are “fortified” with vitamin D (which means supplemental vitamin D has been added). These include foods such as milk, some orange juices, breakfast cereals, and yogurt. It will say on the label how much vitamin D has been added per serving.
One note about foods fortified with vitamin D. Most often it is the D2 form that is added which is poorly utilized in humans according to this study.
Important note: because vitamin D is fat-soluble, you can increase absorption of it from your food if you eat it with a source of healthy fat.
Between sun exposure and food, it still may be difficult to achieve even the minimum of 400 IU of vitamin D each day; this is why vitamin D supplements are quite popular.
Do I need to take a vitamin D supplement?
It’s easy enough to just pop a pill, liquid or spray to obtain what you need. Any of these can ensure that you get the minimum amount of vitamin D, plus a bit extra.
But before you take vitamin D containing supplements, check that it won’t interact with medications you are taking, always read your labels, and do not take more than the suggested dosage on the label, unless recommended by a healthcare professional.
Note that the upper tolerable limit (for the general population) is currently 4,000 IU/day. Excessive supplementation of vitamin D above this level over a long period of time can raise your blood levels of calcium to an unsafe level.
If you’re concerned, the best thing to do is ask your healthcare professional to do a blood test and make a recommendation about how much vitamin D supplementation is right for you. Your healthcare practitioner may recommend higher amounts of vitamin D supplementation for a short time while under their care.
Vitamin D is an essential fat-soluble vitamin and many people have a hard time maintaining adequate levels. The three ways to get vitamin D are sun exposure, by consuming certain foods, and in supplements.
I’ve given you some ideas how you can increase your levels to reduce your risk of disease and to increase overall health.
If you’re concerned, it’s best to request a blood test that tests your vitamin D levels to be sure what’s right for your individual needs. Always take supplements as directed.