The Sunshine Vitamin: Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?

Low vitamin D – a growing problem worldwide – has been linked to several health issues, including hypertension and stroke, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

As the days get shorter and grayer, take steps to ensure that you get enough of the sunshine vitamin.

Vitamin D is famous for helping build strong bones. But in recent years, scientists have realized it’s a major multitasker. It’s involved in a variety of body processes, including moving muscles, carrying nerve messages and boosting immunity. What’s more, vitamin D has emerged as a critical disease fighter.

Scientists now know that vitamin D regulates chemical and energy-producing reactions in about 2,000 genes, says Maria Conley, a registered dietitian specializing in functional nutrition at the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine. Studies show that vitamin D may help prevent an array of illnesses, including cardiovascular disease; cancer; autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis; insulin resistance and diabetes; depression; asthma; and atopic dermatitis, a chronic skin disease similar to eczema.

But more information is needed about vitamin D’s specific contributions, Conley says, adding that the medical community has not reached a consensus on what the optimal blood level range is and how much we need to achieve that.

Even so, there’s a good likelihood you’re not getting enough. People with low levels of vitamin D often don’t see symptoms. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m depressed, my vitamin D levels must be low,’ ” Conley says. It’s important for patients to talk with their doctors if they are interested in knowing their blood levels. Then, personalized recommendations can be made if they’re low or deficient.

Sun, Food, Supplements

To get enough vitamin D, most people have to make an effort. We get vitamin D from three things: sun exposure, food and supplements.

Your body converts the sun’s ultraviolet B, or UVB, rays into vitamin D, but you need to expose more than just your face and arms to get a significant amount, Conley says. In warmer months, light-skinned Michiganders might need to spend 10 to 15 minutes a day outside, and those with darker skin might need much more to get their D, she says. (Avoid burning and use sunscreen.) Of course, that’s not much of an option now. But Conley says: “Even in Florida, people can be vitamin D deficient. A lot of us aren’t getting a significant amount of consistent outside sun exposure.”

When it comes to getting vitamin D from food, fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, are good choices, Conley says. She adds that cheese, egg yolks and some mushrooms also have small amounts. For many, vitamin-D-fortified breakfast cereal, orange juice, milk, and soy and almond drinks are significant sources.

“Unfortunately, it’s difficult to meet the daily recommended amount from food,” Conley says. “Supplementation is most likely needed, especially in the winter months in a place like Michigan.”

At the least, Conley recommends taking a vitamin D supplement with the minimum Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA, of vitamin D: 400 international units, or IUs, for infants younger than 1 year old; 600 IUs for persons 1 to 70; and 800 IUs for those 71 and older.

That doesn’t mean you should pop vitamin D pills like candy. “More isn’t necessarily better; it’s not a miracle supplement,” cautions Conley, who reminds consumers to be wary of too-good-to-be-true claims from advertisers. (See below on how to shop wisely for supplements.)

Get Checked Out

Discuss vitamin D testing with your doctor. (It’s a simple blood test.) “That way, you can get some medical guidance on how much you should be taking,” Conley says. Several factors, including age, weight and certain illnesses, affect vitamin D absorption. If you’re low in vitamin D and get treated, she says, you’ll probably be asked to return in two to three months to have your levels rechecked.

Conley recommends annual vitamin D checks, which they do at the Center for Integrative Medicine. Not all insurance plans cover this procedure, so check with HAP for any out-of-pocket costs related to the test.

Think of vitamin D as contributing to your overall health and wellness. “It’s definitely a valuable nutrient. It plays a role in many different processes in the body,” Conley says. “Discuss your Vitamin D level with your doctor. Pay attention to it. It’s important.”

Supplements 101

Not all supplements are created equal. Here’s how to shop smart.

Do ThisBefore adding vitamin D or another supplement to your diet, consider this:

  • Talk to your doctor. He or she can recommend a dose based on vitamin D levels in your blood and may even suggest a specific brand. It’s important to get the right supplement because some can interfere with medications.
  • Buyer beware. The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements the way it does drugs. Don’t fall for claims from companies such as “standardized,” “certified” and “verified.” They aren’t defined by U.S. law and don’t ensure quality or consistency, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health.
  • Look for a seal. Some independent groups issue a “seal of approval” for products that have met their quality and contamination tests. These include ConsumerLab.com, NFS and USP.

Categories: Get Healthy

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