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Everything You Need to Know About Vitamin D

Vitamin supplements are a long-debated topic between health professionals and regular people alike. Should we take them? Do they just create very expensive urine? Can’t we just eat foods with vitamin D? Do vitamin supplements provide the insurance on our health for which we surely take them?

Vitamin D is in many vitamin supplement blends, and there are various benefits to our health. However, it has been largely overlooked and outshined by vitamin C. In fact, experts estimate that 40% of adults suffer from a vitamin D deficiency. Recently, with the spread of COVID-19 and growing awareness around the potentially life-threatening disease, vitamin D is stepping into the light. Can ensuring you and your family have adequate levels help lower your risk of developing a severe case of COVID? 

What is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a micronutrient found in some foods naturally and added to other foods. It is involved in countless processes within the human body, many of which are related to maintaining strong, healthy bones. Vitamin D also plays a crucial role in muscle and nerve health, immune function, and more. There are countless vitamin D benefits to mention. 

Two Types of Vitamin D

There are two dietary forms of vitamin D:

  • Vitamin D3, also known as cholecalciferol. Foods with vitamin D3 are animal sources like fatty fish and egg yolks.
  • Vitamin D2, also known as ergocalciferol. Foods with vitamin D2 are plants like mushrooms and yeast.

Vitamin D3 is about twice as effective in the body as vitamin D2. 

Woman running on the beach for vitamin D.

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it dissolves in fat. The body can store fat-soluble vitamins for an extended period.

It’s worth noting that one of the arguments against taking multi-vitamins is that many vitamins are water-soluble, and people believe we just pee them out, so we are unable to reap the vitamin D benefits or benefits of any other vitamin. This is only partially true, as the body takes what it needs from water-soluble vitamins before excreting the rest through urine. This is a good thing; it prevents vitamins from building up to toxic levels in the body. If you happen to get enough vitamin C through your diet one day, you might pee out the vitamin C from your multi-vitamin.

Because the body doesn’t store excess water-soluble vitamins, you must get them through diet and supplementation every day. On the other hand, because the body can store excess fat-soluble vitamins, it is less critical to consume them daily. The focus should be on maintaining adequate levels within your blood. Maintaining these levels, even when you’re not consuming the vitamin daily, still allows you to experience the benefits.

How does the Body Make Vitamin D?

The body gets this important vitamin from food, supplements, and sunshine.

Vitamin D is a steroidal vitamin that the body can create when direct sunlight touches the cholesterol in your skin. The sun provides the energy for vitamin D synthesis. You need roughly fifteen minutes of midday summer sun for the body to produce adequate vitamin D.

For people who don’t live in areas where it’s sunny throughout the year, eating foods with vitamin D is essential. If your diet doesn’t contain plentiful foods with vitamin D, the next best way to get it is to take supplements. Supplements are an acceptable way to get all the vitamin D benefits.

How Much Vitamin D Do We Need?

Daily recommended values vary by age and life stage.

Stage

Recommended Daily Amount

Newborn–12 months

10 mcg/400 IU

Children 1-13 years

15 mcg/600 IU

Teens 14-18 years

15 mcg/600 IU

Adults 19-70 years

15 mcg/600 IU

Older Adults 71 years and older

20 mcg/800 IU

Pregnant or Breastfeeding Women

15 mcg/600 IU

 

For reference, 3.5 ounces of salmon contains 526 IU of vitamin D. Cod liver oil contains about 448 IU per teaspoon. Canned tuna has 268 IU in a 3.5-ounce serving. A single egg yolk contains 37 IU, and wild mushrooms contain up to 2300 IU per 3.5-ounce serving.

Fortified foods can also offer the same vitamin D benefits, and one eight-ounce glass of cow’s milk contains about 120 IU. Soy milk contains about 115 IU in an eight-ounce serving, and orange juice contains about 100 IU in a glass. Just make sure that the products you select mention that they are fortified with vitamin D.

Getting Vitamin D from the Sun

Relying on the sun as your only means of getting vitamin D is not ideal because exposing your skin to direct sunlight carries the increased risk of skin cancer and premature aging of the skin.

Factors like your geographical location in relation to the equator, how dark your skin is, the amount of skin exposed, and whether you use sunscreen all affect the amount of vitamin D your body can produce.

Foods with Vitamin D

Earlier, we mentioned foods with vitamin D naturally:

  • fatty fish including salmon, tuna, herring, mussels, anchovies, swordfish, sardines, mackerel, trout, and pollock
  • red meat
  • liver
  • egg yolks 

Vitamin D supplements often fortify select foods. These foods are:

  • dairy products
  • soy milk
  • fat spreads
  • breakfast cereals
  • orange juice

Vitamin D Supplements

Vitamin D supplements are an excellent addition to your regimen. You can find stand-alone supplements, or you can consider getting a vitamin D supplement in a multi-vitamin. Read the labels and aim for a vitamin D supplement with or above 600 IU.

Stand-Alone Vitamin D Supplements

Swiss Natural Vitamin D3 Supplement: a gluten and dairy-free vitamin D supplement. Swiss Natural Vitamin D is also free from artificial colours, sweeteners, flavours, preservatives, wheat, and yeast. Swiss Natural Vitamin D supplements contain 1000 IU of vitamin D3, the most beneficial form. 

Multi-Vitamin Vitamin D Supplements

Optimum Nutrition Opti-Men and Opti-Women Multi-Vitamin and Vitamin D Supplement: a comprehensive multi-vitamin of 23 essential vitamins designed to support active women and men. Consider this a good supplement, as it contains 600 IU of vitamin D.

Vitamin D Benefits

Ensuring you get enough vitamin D through supplements, foods with vitamin D, and sunshine has plentiful benefits as the body requires vitamin D to carry out hundreds of functions on a cellular level.

Some benefits for people who consume diets rich in food with Vitamin D and Vitamin D supplements:

  1. Can lower the risk of age-related falls, fractures, and osteoporosis.
  1. Can increase physical strength. Fitness-minded people should prioritize foods with vitamin D.
  1. About 1100 IU combined with calcium reduce cancer risks by 60%.
  1. Can ease symptoms of clinical depression.
  1. Can lower the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
  1. May help you live longer.
  1. May support your immune system and help protect against various diseases, including COVID-19.

Symptoms of a Vitamin D Deficiency

If you don’t get direct sunlight, supplement, or consume enough foods with vitamin D, you risk developing a deficiency. Vitamin D deficiencies are one of the most common deficiencies in first-world countries like Canada and the United States. Older adults are at a greater risk.

In children, vitamin D deficiency can cause a disease called rickets, where bones are weak and soft. Some symptoms include bowed legs and stunted growth. Doctors treat rickets by treating the deficiency with vitamin D and calcium.

Vitamin D deficiency in adults can fly under the radar because symptoms are subtle and may take years to surface.

Symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency are:

  • frequently getting ill or infected
  • feeling fatigued and tired
  • bone pain or pain in the low back
  • depression
  • slow wound healing
  • bone loss
  • hair loss
  • unexplained muscle pain

Prolonged vitamin D deficiency can lead to osteoporosis, reduced mineral density, falls, bone fractures, heart disease, heart attack, diabetes, cancer, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and reduced life expectancy.

Woman taking a vitaman D pill.

How Do You Know if You Have a Vitamin D Deficiency?

The only way to positively know if you have a vitamin D deficiency is to have a blood test done. Suppose you’re experiencing symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency, or you’d like to rule out a vitamin D deficiency. In that case, you can ask your primary care physician to order a blood test to check your levels.

Vitamin D and COVID-19

Having a vitamin D deficiency is problematic for many reasons, one of which is it puts you at greater risk for developing a severe case of COVID-19 if you contract the disease. 

Doctors are still learning about the coronavirus as it tears through communities around the world. Studies show that patients with a vitamin D deficiency are at a significantly greater risk of having severe symptoms after being infected with COVID.

COVID patients with a vitamin D deficiency are also suffering from more significant inflammatory responses to the virus than those who do not have a deficiency. These factors translate to an increased mortality rate in COVID patients with a vitamin D deficiency.

Another study shows that when hospitalized with COVID-19, patients given vitamin D supplements as a part of their treatment plan were significantly less likely to go to the ICU.

Health care professionals are beginning to recommend a vitamin D supplement to populations at risk for COVID exposure. Of all the benefits, some protection against the pandemic might be the greatest on the list, given the current situation.

Take a Multi-Vitamin

Now that you’re likely convinced of the vitamin D benefits, it’s essential to understand that nutrients rarely work in isolation. Many vitamins and minerals depend on other nutrients, so while the vitamin D benefits are varied and plentiful, taking vitamin D alone might not help if you’re not adequately ingesting the other essential vitamins, too.

Some evidence suggests that the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K all work together and rely on one another to carry out vital cellular functions. All this to say, you might be setting your body up for more success with benefits if you take a multi-vitamin instead of a stand-alone vitamin D supplement.

Calcium is another nutrient that works together with vitamin D in the body. Both nutrients play critical roles in maintaining bone density and strength, but neither nutrient can carry out this job without the other.

Can You Get Too Much Vitamin D?

Earlier, we mentioned that it’s very difficult to reach toxic levels of water-soluble vitamins, as the body excretes excess through urine. Fat-soluble vitamins are different; as the body can maintain blood levels of vitamin D for a more extended period, it is possible for levels to reach toxicity.

While it is possible, vitamin D toxicity is very rare. You are only at risk if you take very high doses daily for an extended period. The safe upper limit for vitamin D daily consumption is 4000 IU.

Symptoms of vitamin D toxicity include:

  • confusion
  • difficulty concentrating
  • drowsiness
  • depression
  • stomach cramps
  • vomiting
  • high blood pressure
  • constipation

Consuming foods with vitamin D, getting some direct sunshine, and taking supplements is a great way to optimize your health and keep you in tip-top shape. While deficiencies carry various risks, perhaps the scariest of all are the correlations between low levels of vitamin D and severe cases of COVID. What’s more, a vitamin D benefit that cannot be understated is its potential to protect us from the potentially deadly virus.

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