What’s the Scoop on Vitamin D?
By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD
Vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” is extremely important for optimal health. You need it to absorb calcium, build strong bones, and maintain a healthy immune system.
However, most Americans do not get enough of this vitamin and are at risk for vitamin D deficiency. Inadequate levels of vitamin D can lead to fatigue and depression, and cause rickets or lead to osteoporosis in more severe cases. Vitamin D deficiency may also be linked to the development of some cancers, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, and type 2 diabetes.
Read on to learn about the functions of vitamin D in the body, how you can get enough of this vitamin, and risk factors for deficiency.
Functions of Vitamin D
One of the primary roles of vitamin D in the body is assisting with the absorption of calcium. Without enough calcium, your bones can become brittle.
Children who do not get enough vitamin D may develop rickets, characterized by weak and soft bones. Inadequate vitamin D intake in adulthood can lead to osteomalacia, a disease similar to rickets, or contribute to osteoporosis, marked by weak and porous bones.
Vitamin D may also influence muscle function and immunity. Due to the variety of roles it has in the body, vitamin D may help prevent some diseases, including cancer. However, research on the role of vitamin D in disease development is still preliminary and limited.
Sources of Vitamin D
The body makes vitamin D when skin is exposed to sunshine. Several factors can influence how well a person converts sun into vitamin D, including the season, the time of day, the proximity of where you live to the equator, air pollution, and skin color.
Sunshine is typically the best source of vitamin D, since foods only contain small amounts of the vitamin. Foods that have some vitamin D include salmon, cod liver oil, sardines, fortified milk and dairy products, eggs, and fortified orange juice.
Risk Factors for Vitamin D Deficiency
Many Americans do not get enough sunshine and therefore fail to create adequate levels of vitamin D, even if they are eating foods with vitamin D.
Groups that are at a high risk for vitamin D deficiency include individuals living in areas with limited sunshine, the elderly, people who are home bound or do not go outside, and those with dark-colored skin.
In the northern United States, including the Midwest, the angle of the sun during November through March prevents your skin from converting sun to vitamin D. This makes people in these areas particularly vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency.
Inadequate vitamin D levels may cause fatigue, depression, and weakened immunity, as well as the more serious issues outlined above. If you suspect that you have low vitamin D levels, schedule an appointment with a doctor to get a blood test.
In addition to eating foods with vitamin D, you may need to take vitamin D3 supplements, especially during the winter months, to maintain adequate vitamin D status. However, you should always speak with your healthcare provider before starting new supplements.
Note from Healthy For Life Meals: Eating a variety of foods that provide vitamin D, in addition to taking supplements when directed by a doctor, can help prevent vitamin D deficiency. Our meals incorporate foods that contain vitamin D to help you get enough of this important vitamin. Get started with one of our plans today!