41.6% of adults in the U.S. are vitamin D deficient. And the number goes up to 69.2% in Hispanics and 82.1% in African-Americans, according to the NIH.
Those stats indicate there is a good chance YOU may not be getting enough vitamin D either.
Before we get into how much vitamin D you need, let’s talk about WHY vitamin D is important and WHY it’s hard to get enough in winter
Vitamin D plays an essential role in our health and well-being.
For instance, did you know that vitamin D helps the body make hundreds of disease-preventing proteins and enzymes and affects more than 2,000 genes? As a result, vitamin D enhances muscle strength, builds bones, has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects and bolsters the immune system.
If you consistently don’t get enough vitamin D, you could be leaving your body vulnerable to diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes as well as chronic pain. Plus, vitamin D deficiency in winter is linked to seasonal affect disorder (SAD) which can result in depression. So, you’ll want to be sure that you are getting enough vitamin D especially in winter.
Most vitamins your body absorbs primarily from food. But vitamin D is different. Your body produces vitamin D primarily when your skin is exposed to sunlight. That’s why vitamin D is often referred to as “the sunshine vitamin.”
Vitamin D is more than one vitamin, it is actually a family of D vitamins that share a similar chemical structure. The two most important D vitamins for humans are vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Vitamin D2 is a laboratory produced synthetic vitamin often added to “Vitamin D Fortified” foods and products. Vitamin D3 is found in cholesterol and fatty acid animal-sourced foods including fish, fish oil, dairy products and egg yolks. D3 is also the form your skin produces in response to exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet light.
While vitamin D2 and D3 are similar, they are not equal when it comes to raising low vitamin D levels. Both forms are absorbed into your bloodstream, but vitamin D3 has been shown to be more effective than vitamin D2 in raising blood levels of calcifediol (25-hydroxyvitamin D) and correcting vitamin D insufficiency.
Vitamin D production through skin exposure is greatly affected by both seasons and the latitude at which we live. As an example, Canada has labeled the period between October and March as “Vitamin D Winter" due to the lack of sunshine and the limited time they are able to stay outdoors in the cold weather. Vitamin D Winter is extended for those living closer to the North Pole. Unless you practice extreme outdoor sports in winter, it’s highly likely that you aren’t getting enough vitamin D at this time of year.
Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include a high incidence of infections or slow healing time related to decreased immunity, bone pain and muscle weakness, bone or muscle wasting, hair loss and depression. Over time, vitamin D deficiency can lead to decreased bone density contributing to osteoporosis and frequent fractures. Advanced untreated vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets, a relatively rare disease that causes the bones to become soft and bend.
If you are not receiving adequate sunlight exposure (15-30 minutes daily) for your body to create vitamin D by itself, you can consume foods with vitamin D. Ideally choose foods and supplements that contain vitamin D3 such as wild caught fatty fish like salmon, mushrooms, grass-fed dairy and eggs with yolks.
But keep in mind that it’s virtually impossible to get adequate amounts of vitamin D from food alone. In winter, you may have to take vitamin D supplements to ensure your body gets enough vitamin D.
But you may ask, do I really need to take a vitamin D supplement?
The simple answer is “No.” Multivitamins generally do contain vitamin D, but higher levels may be needed for optimal blood levels. For example, as you age, vitamin D absorption decreases and the skin produces vitamin D less efficiently. The older you are, you may need more vitamin D and you may need to combine it with vitamin K for maximum absorption.
The best way to know if you need vitamin D is to have your doctor order a test for it every year during your annual exam. That’s what I do, too. And, this year I was surprised by my vitamin D test results.
Previously, I was getting enough vitamin D. But this year I wasn’t. I wouldn’t have known that if my primary care functional medicine doctor hadn’t ordered the test during my annual exam.
I was surprised about not getting enough vitamin D because I live in a VERY sunny and warm area near Palm Springs, CA. And, I love spending time outdoors. But I do have to wear sunscreen because I have very fair skin. And, sunscreen can block the body’s ability to produce vitamin D from sunshine. Maybe that’s why I need to supplement vitamin D. Or maybe, it’s because I am now 52 and just need more vitamin D.
Who knows why all of a sudden I need more vitamin D this year. But I’m sharing this with you so you can understand the importance of working with your doctor and getting your vitamin D levels tested.
If your vitamin D levels are low, then I recommend that you choose to supplement with vitamin D3 which is the natural form of vitamin D that your body makes from sunlight.
It is also ideal to choose a vitamin D3, calcium and vitamin K supplement combo for maximum absorption and to ensure calcium gets into your bones. And, take your vitamin D3 supplement with a meal for maximum absorption. Remember it’s not just how much vitamin D you take, but how much that gets absorbed that matters.
Takeaway: In winter, you most likely are not getting enough vitamin D unless you spend at least 15-30 minutes in the sun. Have your doctor test your vitamin D levels to be sure. But if your vitamin D levels are low, the best way to close your vitamin D gap is with a vitamin D3, calcium and vitamin K supplement in addition to your multivitamin.
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