Daily Dose: Vitamin D

Find out why vitamin D is important and how you can make sure to get enough!

Unlike many of the essential vitamins, vitamin D can be made by our bodies. Unfortunately, cold winters and short days can make it tough to get enough sunlight for our skin to make this needed vitamin. Fortunately, there are a few fixes if you think you’re not getting enough.

Why does my body need vitamin D?

Vitamin D plays a key role in absorbing calcium, especially in the context of keeping bones healthy. Vitamin D is made in the skin and then travels through the blood to the liver and then the kidneys. In the liver and kidneys, vitamin D is converted to its active form, often known as 1,25 vitamin D, that then sets off the production of compounds needed to absorb calcium in the intestine. It also acts on bones to make sure they are properly maintained. Vitamin D also seems to play a major role in maintaining the immune system and may play some role in brain development.

How can I get vitamin D?

Sun exposure is the main way to get vitamin D, although it’s now often added to cow’s milk, soy milk and orange juice. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel also contain vitamin D as do beef liver, cheese and eggs, although in much smaller amounts. When it comes to sun exposure, most people only need five to 30 minutes of exposure to the sun twice a week. This can be on the face, arms, back or legs. Beyond that amount, sunscreen should be used to avoid the harmful effects of too much UV exposure. Tanning beds shouldn’t be used to get more vitamin D.

What happens when I don’t get enough vitamin D?

Since vitamin D plays a critical role in bone health, vitamin D deficiency can lead to problems with hardening the bones and keeping them healthy. Young children who don’t get enough vitamin D can get a condition called rickets, where their bones don’t form properly because they don’t have calcium to harden. In older adults, vitamin D deficiency can lead to a condition called osteomalacia, where the bones weaken. This can cause pain and be accompanied by muscle weakness. Mild deficiency may contribute to osteoporosis in older adults.

Who’s most at risk for deficiency?

Breastfed infants are most at risk for vitamin D deficiency because human milk can’t provide all the necessary vitamin D. Older adults are also at risk since the skin becomes less efficient at making vitamin D over time. They also often spend more time indoors. People who have limited sun exposure or people who have dark skin in areas with weaker sunlight are also at risk since their skin exposure may not be adequate to make enough vitamin D. Finally, people who have trouble absorbing fat in their diet, like those with inflammatory bowel diseases or those who have had gastric bypass surgery, may also become vitamin D deficient. 

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