Even if you eat a healthy, clean diet, you can still have low levels of certain nutrients that are completely essential to your optimal health and wellbeing. For instance, did you know that it’s extremely common to have a vitamin D deficiency?! In fact, it’s one of the top vitamin deficiencies, with about 41.6% of people in the US deficient!
Why do so many people struggle with this particular nutrient? It’s all in the way you get it… or don’t. Basically, it’s tough to maintain sufficient levels, and we’ll go into that in more detail throughout this article…
In fact, we’ll answer all your burning questions about vitamin D and the vital role it plays in your internal processes. So, let’s start at ground zero…
What is Vitamin D?
If you think you know the answer to this question, there’s always more to learn! Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so it dissolves in both fats and oils and can be stored in your body for long time periods. Unlike water-soluble vitamins, any excess vitamin D that your body does not use isn’t flushed out of your system. For this reason, it’s possible to get too much vitamin D – but only if you take an extremely high dose for a very long time period. Overdosing on this nutrient is rare.
There are two main types of vitamin D, D3 and D2, which occur naturally in different places…
Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol): Found in animal-based foods, such as fatty fish and egg yolks.
Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol): Found in plants, mushrooms and yeasts.
If you’re deficient in vitamin D and seeking one of the best vitamin D supplements, you’ll want one that has D3, instead of D2. Research shows that vitamin D3 is almost twice as effective at increasing blood levels of the nutrient as D2. (1)
#1 Benefit of Vitamin D: Bone Health
Vitamin D has many indispensable roles in your body, but it’s number one claim to fame is its contribution to great bone health and preventing bone loss as you age. How does it do this? Basically, by teaming up with the mineral, calcium. The two nutrients rely on each other to protect and build healthy, strong bones from youth to old age.
Though calcium is responsible for building and maintaining your bones, you need vitamin D to properly absorb it into your body. In short, calcium can only reach its full bone-building potential when you also have enough vitamin D! Unfortunately, when you’re lacking in either nutrient, you’re at risk for the following serious diseases…
Rickets – Though it’s rare in the US, it’s seen in many children in developing countries. Effects of the disease include soft, weak bones, due to a lack of vitamin D. Symptoms may include pain in the spine, pelvis and legs, along with delayed growth and muscle weakness.
Osteoporosis – In contrast, this disease most notably effects the elderly population. It stems from a reduction in the density and quality of bone, along with a lack in creation of new bone. There are often no symptoms apparent until the first break happens. Osteoporosis is one of the main causes of fractures and broken bones in the elderly. Other symptoms may include a stooped posture, declining height and back pain.
#2 Vitamin D Benefit: Mood Health
Studies show that vitamin D may have a significant effect on the way you feel. If you’re deficient in the nutrient, it could be one of the main reasons your feeling “blue”, anxious or stressed. This is because there are vitamin D receptors in the brain, and lacking in the vitamin could affect the activity of the neurotransmitter, serotonin.
Serotonin is a “feel-good” hormone in your body. So, when it’s out of whack, you could be at a greater risk for mood disorders. Though there are other factors that can also contribute to depression or anxiety, researchers have found that those with low vitamin D levels are 11 times more likely to be depressed than those with normal levels! (2)
This also applies to something called “seasonal affective disorder” or SAD. Basically, in seasons with low sunlight, you’re at a greater risk of vitamin D deficiency and lack of the feel-good hormone, serotonin. You may need to boost your D levels with a supplement during this time (more on that in a bit).
Additional Vitamin D Benefits
Vitamin D is also intricately linked to a number of vital functions in your body, and keeping adequate levels may result in these health benefits:
- Higher immunity (and protection against respiratory functions)
- Reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and heart failure
- Reduced risk of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes
- Protection against dementia and cognitive decline
- Assistance with autoimmune disorder symptoms
How Do You Get Vitamin D?
The best way to get this nutrient is from the sun, which is exactly why it’s dubbed “the sunshine vitamin”. In a process called vitamin D synthesis, the sun triggers your body to start producing vitamin D when it hits your skin. Pretty cool, right?
The problem is, the process isn’t always that simple. Your skin has to be fully exposed to the sun for vitamin D synthesis to occur, and sunscreens, along with clothing, can block that exposure. In addition, the sun is much stronger in certain parts of the world than others, based on how near or far you live to the equator. If you’re far from it, the sun may not be strong enough for most of the year to actually help you get the vitamin D you need.
For this reason, although the sun is one of the best ways to get vitamin D, it’s also one of the hardest. Even if you live in an area that gets powerful sunlight year-round, sunscreens are still recommended to prevent sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer. (3)
Vitamin D in Foods
You can also get vitamin D from some foods that you eat, however, this route can be a bit more tricky. There aren’t a ton of food sources that deliver great amounts of vitamin D. Plus, if you don’t like these foods, you are at a much greater risk of vitamin D deficiency.
Some of the best food sources of vitamin D are shown below…
Type of Food / Amount of Vitamin D It Contains:
*IU means international units (type of measurement)
- Cod liver oil (1 tablespoon) – 1,360 IU
- Salmon, cooked (3 ounces) – 447 IU
- Tuna, canned in water (3 ounces) – 154 IU
- Beef liver, cooked (3 ounces) – 42 IU
- Egg yolk (1 large) – 41 IU
- Sardines, canned in oil, drained (2 sardines) – 46 IU
- Swiss cheese (1 ounce) – 6 IU
Foods Fortified with Vitamin D
Vitamin D is also added to some foods that are naturally low in the nutrient, offering another opportunity to get it in your diet. Foods that are fortified with vitamin D will say so on the product container. Some of these include…
- Orange juice (1 cup) – 137 IU
- Milk (1 cup) – 115-137 IU
- Yogurt (6 ounces) – 80 IU
- Cereal (1 cup) – 40 IU
Even with these foods being vitamin D fortified, it usually isn’t enough, and you can still run short. We’ll go into the specific requirements of how much of this nutrient you should ideally be getting each day, but first, let’s talk about what happens when you don’t get enough…
Vitamin D Deficiency Symptoms
If you’re low in vitamin D (which a good portion of the population in the US is), you will most likely feel pretty crappy! Some of the most common symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency include: (4)
- Bone fractures (from softening of bones/low bone density)
- Depression or anxiety
- Muscle cramps
- Joint pain (back and knees)
- Blood sugar issues
- Low immunity (get sick easily)
- Feeling irritable
- Impaired wound healing
- Spasms in the muscles of hands and feet
- Weight gain
A doctor can test your vitamin D levels to find out if they’re in a normal, healthy range. And if they aren’t, you want to make sure you get them back to safe ground, stat. Though, at first, symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency may be brushed off as normal aches and pains of life, in the long run they can be detrimental.
Potential Long-Term Consequences of a Vitamin D Deficiency
- Osteoporosis (and early warning sign, osteopenia)
- Rickets (in children)
- Weakened immune system
- Periodontal disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Multiple Sclerosis
Researchers at Boston University completed a study revealing that vitamin D deficiency actually effects your DNA, which could play a major role in how it’s linked to certain diseases.
Who’s At Risk for a Vitamin D Deficiency?
As mentioned, it can be very difficult to get the vitamin D you need each day, without taking a supplement. Here are some of the biggest risk factors for deficiency…
Vitamin D Deficiency Causes:
Lack of sunlight– People that live in parts of the world where there isn’t enough strong sunlight year-round are at a higher risk. Or, those who simply don’t go outside enough, or are always covered up or lathered in sunscreen when they do.
Not enough vitamin D foods– Those who don’t eat a lot of the foods naturally high in vitamin D (such as fatty fish), are at a higher risk.
Age – The older you get, the less your kidneys are able to convert vitamin D into its active form (calcitriol), which is the type your body can use.
Digestive problems – People with less than optimal digestion are at a greater risk of deficiency since problems in the digestive tract can affect the proper absorption of vitamin D.
Obesity – When there is a lot of fat in the body, it’s harder for vitamin D to be released into circulation and do its job.
Liver/kidney disease – These diseases can also disrupt the conversion of vitamin D into its active and useable form.
Darker skin – Those with darker skin have more of the pigment, melanin. This pigment reduces the ability of the skin to make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight.
How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?
There are mixed opinions on how much vitamin D you should consume each day for optimal health. The current recommended daily dietary allowance (or RDA) put in place by the Institute of Medicine is as follows:
Vitamin D Dosage:
- Infants (0-12 months) – 400 IU (10 mcg)
- Children and adults (1-70 years old) – 600 IU (15 mcg)
- Older adults and pregnant or breastfeeding women – 800 IU (20 mcg)
But some health experts believe the recommended intake is much too low and that people need more to reach sufficient blood levels. Per the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the safe upper limit is 4,000 IU (100 mcg) per day (if you AREN’T deficient). If you are deficient, it’s a different story…
How Do I Know if I’m Deficient?
Your doctor will need to perform a blood test to determine if you’re deficient in vitamin D. You want your vitamin D levels to be above 20 ng/ml (though some practitioners suggest even higher levels).
Anything under 12 ng/ml is considered deficient. In this case, the doctor will prescribe you a vitamin D prescription, or tell you to take an over the counter supplement (usually recommended at 4,000 – 5,000 IU per day until your blood shows adequate levels). If you suspect you may be deficient, see your physician immediately so they can recommend the best course of action. (5)
Maintaining Optimal Vitamin D Levels
Once you’re in the “safe zone” and know you aren’t deficient in vitamin D, it’s time to make sure you maintain great levels of the nutrient. If you know you don’t eat enough vitamin D foods, and rarely see the sunlight, you definitely want to go the supplement route.
But your options are more expansive than you think. While you definitely can take a pure vitamin D supplement, you can also find the nutrient in other places. A good multivitamin will include vitamin D along with many more essential nutrients that you also may be lacking.
In addition, some of the best meal replacement shakes will include a vitamin/mineral blend, giving your body the fuel it needs. Whatever path you decide upon, definitely don’t take a vitamin D deficiency lightly. Make sure you stay on top of all of your nutrient levels so you can experience the vibrant health and happiness you deserve!