Vitamin D is a unique nutrient that our bodies are capable of manufacturing from sunshine. And while this sounds like an easy way to get our share of this important vitamin, it turns nearly 50% of Americans are deficient in it. To make things worse, many people are currently staying indoors more, so the true numbers may be higher.
What is Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that our bodies manufacture but is also found in some animal products and plant foods. It is essential because it helps the body absorb vitamin C, supports the skeletal system and supports immune health, among other things.
Vitamin D is not just one, but a family of compounds that are slightly different from each other. Vitamin D2 is found in plant-based food, while D3 is the type our bodies make and found in animal foods such as butter, beef liver and egg yolks, and lanolin. Vitamin D4 is less studied, but we do know that mushrooms are a good source for this.
Lack of vitamin D is linked to some health problems. Up until the 1940s, a skeletal disorder called rickets was devasting children in American. Rickets results in softening and weakening of the bones, and researchers eventually found that vitamin D deficiency was the cause. Surprisingly, some doctors today see the number of rickets cases growing, especially in industrialized countries. (1)
Who’s at Risk?
Just like any nutrient deficiency, some people are more at risk than others. Risk factors include:
- Lack of sunshine
- Using sunblock or sunscreen lotion
- Dark skin
- Vegan diets
- Digestive problems or absorption
Sunshine is necessary for the production of vitamin D, and doctors recommend spending at least 20 minutes in sunshine every day with more than 40% of the skin exposed. (2) About 50% to 90% of vitamin D is from sunlight and the rest comes from diet, but covering up while outside can stop the body from using sunshine, while cloudy days can also inhibit the sun necessary for vitamin D. Those with dark skin may need more time in the sun because darker pigmentation acts as a natural sunscreen.
Digestive problems can cause a vitamin D deficiency due to absorption problems. Celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) are two of the digestive health issues that can lead to the inability to absorb certain nutrients. In addition, body fat can bind to vitamin D, making obesity a risk factor for deficiencies, as well.
Benefits of Vitamin D
Aside from rickets there are many reasons to ensure you get enough vitamin D. Here are just a few of the health benefits and the role that it plays in your body:
- Maintains healthy levels of calcium and phosphorus
- Maintains healthy bones and teeth
- Supports the immune system
- Supports lung and cardiovascular health
- Supports the nervous system
Vitamin D can also support healthy pregnancies and nursing babies. It seems that having a sufficient amount of this nutrient provides many benefits in pregnant women. But low exposure to vitamin D in children seems to correlate with a greater risk of allergies. Maintaining healthy nutritional levels can certainly benefit both mother and child.
Sources of Vitamin D
As mentioned, sunshine is the best source, however, doctors note that even if you get adequate sunshine, your body can only make so much at once. Therefore, food sources of vitamin D are just as crucial, and may be more important when people are inside for longer periods than normal. Knowing which foods are the best sources of vitamin D can help you maintain healthy levels of it in your blood.
- Fatty fish like salmon, sardines and tuna are excellent sources of vitamin D. These fish are also a great source of healthy Omega 3 fatty acids and protein, too.
- Cod liver oil is taken by many for skin and digestive health as well as a source of vitamin D. In fact, just one dose can account for more than 200% of the recommended daily value
- Mushrooms are a vegan favorite when it comes to nutritional superfoods, and mushrooms don’t disappoint. They are a great source of vitamin D as well as potassium and vitamin C.
- Yogurt is a source of vitamin D, magnesium and potassium. Avoid the high-sugar yogurts and opt for plain. Adding your own toppings like fruit and honey can boost the nutrition count and allow you to control the amount of sugar you consume.
- Eggs are a rich source of nutrients, but don’t throw out the yolks. Egg yolks contain vitamin D along with healthy amounts of iron and protein.
- Ricotta cheese is considered a great source for D as well as protein. But go easy because it is also high in fat.
What About Supplements?
Even if you are an avid outdoor person or sun worshipper, sunny days are not guaranteed year-round. At the same time, it is not advisable to sit in the sun with 40% of your skin exposed if it is too cold outside. And even if sunshine exposure is adequate, vegans may have a more difficult time obtaining their vitamin D through food since sources are mainly from animal products.
Luckily, supplementing with vitamin D does have an impact when it comes from a natural source. And it makes getting your daily dose of this nutrient easy when you have to stay home, like during bad weather or for other reasons. Supplementation may also help vegans and pregnant women reap the benefits of adequate levels of vitamin D, like boosting energy and strong bones.
Keep your body strong with healthy nutrition and exercise. Focus on foods that contain vitamin D along with daily sunshine to help you maintain healthy levels of this all-important nutrient. And when life gets too busy, supplements can help fill in nutritional gaps, so you be sure that you are doing all you can to support your healthy body.
1 Uday S, Högler W. Nutritional Rickets and Osteomalacia in the Twenty-first Century: Revised Concepts, Public Health, and Prevention Strategies [published correction appears in Curr Osteoporos Rep. 2017 Aug 14;:]. Curr Osteoporos Rep. 2017;15(4):293‐302. doi:10.1007/s11914-017-0383-y
2 Sizar O, Khare S, Goyal A, et al. Vitamin D Deficiency. [Updated 2020 Feb 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532266/