Basking in the Benefits: A New Look at Vitamin D

Although we have known for ages that Vitamin D is a crucial for healthy bodies, it has received extra attention in the media lately that may have left you wondering what all the fuss is about. If you’re as skeptical about hyped up new health trends and dietary supplements as I am, then you probably haven’t gone out and bought every bottle of Vitamin D pills at your local health food store. However, the more I read and understand about it, the more inclined I am to soak up the sun and drink a tall glass of fortified soymilk.
As the list of health benefits for people getting enough Vitamin D in their diets continues to grow, many groups have jumped on the Vitamin D bandwagon. For example, many doctors and organizations now suggest that previous recommended daily intakes were inadequate and groups such as the Micronutrient Information Center of the Linus Pauling Institute are now calling for up to 1000 IU for adults. In addition to assisting in the absorption of calcium and promoting bone mineralization, an adequate intake also helps to strengthen the immune system and protect against a number of serious diseases, including rickets and osteomalacia. Research suggests vitamin D may also provide protection from hypertension, psoriasis, several autoimmune diseases (including multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis), and reduce the incidence of fractured bones. In addition, growing evidence has demonstrated its important role in defending against cancer. I knew from the National Women’s Health Network fact sheet on osteoporosis that Vitamin D was important for strong bones (http://www.nwhn.org/healthinfo/detail.cfm?info_id=18&topic=Fact%20Sheets), but I was amazed to find studies linking a deficiency of vitamin D to as many as 18 different cancers.
Now that you know some of the incredible ways that Vitamin D can protect your health, you’re surely wondering how to get more of it into your diet. The good news is that you can often get all of the vitamin D you need for free, just through sun exposure. The bad news is that most of us want to protect ourselves from skin cancer, as well, even if we did all live in an ideal place for sunbathing. The trick lies in knowing how to balance our exposure to the sun so that we are neither damaging our skin cells nor creating a vitamin D deficiency. Many people do not get nearly enough exposure due to season, geographic latitude, time of day, cloud cover, smog and sunscreen, which all affect UV ray exposure and vitamin D synthesis in the skin. The UV energy above 42 degrees north latitude (a line approximately between the northern border of California and Boston) is insufficient for vitamin D synthesis from November through February. For people living in those areas, it is particularly important to include good sources of vitamin D in their diet. Fish is one of the best sources, especially fatty meat like salmon, tuna, and mackerel. For vegetarians, many mushrooms provide a variable amount of the vitamin. However, because very few foods in nature contain Vitamin D, most of our intake in the United States comes from fortified foods. According to the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, almost all of the U.S. milk supply is fortified with 100 IU/cup of vitamin D. Many foods already in your kitchen often contain added vitamin D, such as some brands of soymilk, cereal, orange juice, yogurt, and margarine. Since not all brands provide equal amounts, you may want to start reading the nutrition label more closely the next time you’re choosing groceries.
Depending on where you live and what you eat, you may not be receiving enough Vitamin D. In that case, a bottle of Vitamin D supplements would be a good investment for your health. Although taking an excessive amount of anything can be toxic, it is highly unlikely that you are at risk for having too much Vitamin D in your body if you take an additional supplement. Now that I know the risks associated with deficiencies of the Vitamin, I plan on taking pills during the winter months. If you do choose to take a supplement, you should keep the daily Adequate Intake (AI) in mind. According to the NIH, the AI for adults is 5 mcg (200 IU) daily for women, men, and pregnant/lactating women under the age of 50. People 50 to 70 years old should get 10 mcg daily (400 IU) daily, and those over 70 should get 15 mcg daily (600 IU). However, many experts recommend more, up to 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day. Look for supplements that provide D3 (cholecalciferol) rather than D2 (ergocalciferol). Ultimately, it is each of our own responsibility to investigate the levels of Vitamin D that we get from sun exposure, diet, and supplements and then choose a healthy plan to follow.

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