Vitamin D benefits, deficiencies and sources
Ahh, vitamin D. The sunshine vitamin. You know the feeling? When you step outside on a warm, sunny day, look up at the sky and sigh a relaxed, “Ahh.” You’re not only enjoying the physical benefits of the sun’s rays, you’re also getting some much needed vitamin D in your system. And when you’re not basking in those relaxing rays, you should be getting vitamin D from the foods you eat. After all, we need enough of this vital nutrient for lots of different things.
Why do I need vitamin D?
Our bodies need vitamin D to absorb the calcium that builds and maintains healthy bones, teeth and muscles. Vitamin D also helps improve our mood and increase energy levels. Not to mention, its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties help support immune health and brain cell activity. It’s important to know your levels of vitamin D to make sure you’re getting enough. If you’re not, you’ll want to know what you can do to give your body the vitamin D it needs to function at its best.1
What are the benefits of vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a powerhouse nutrient that does so much more than build strong bones. The scope of vitamin D benefits spans far and wide – effecting your mental and physical health in so many ways. Take a look:2
- Strengthens bones and muscles. Without enough vitamin D in your body, you can’t absorb the calcium you ingest. So, your body steals calcium from your bones. This is why low vitamin D could lead to things like osteoporosis and bone fractures. You need sufficient vitamin D to help absorb the calcium you take in to keep your bones nice and strong.3
- Protects oral health. Did you know your teeth need calcium just like your bones? Vitamin D keeps your teeth and gums healthy by helping them absorb calcium and stimulating production of antimicrobial peptides.
- Supports immune health and fights inflammation. Step back vitamin C, there’s a new immune support rock star in town. (OK, vitamin D has been around a while.) But, it’s just recently been getting the attention it D-serves. The antimicrobial peptides that vitamin D stimulates help your body fight infection.
- Prevents diabetes. Vitamin D helps improve blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, which could lower your risk of getting diabetes.
- Helps shed extra pounds. Obesity is actually a risk factor for low vitamin D. That’s because vitamin D is fat-soluble, which means it gets stored in fatty tissue instead of being absorbed right away. So, more vitamin D may help you lose weight (and increase your vitamin D levels).
- Boosts mood. It’s not called the sunshine vitamin for no reason. Just like good ol’ sunshine, vitamin D can help improve your mood and combat depression.
- Reduces risk of cancers. Vitamin D has been found to slow or even prevent cancer cells and tumors.
There are three ways to get a good dose of vitamin D: sunlight (15 to 20 minutes, 3 days a week), whole foods and supplements. Fun fact about vitamin D: it's made up of vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Vitamin D2 is found in plants and fortified foods, while vitamin D3 is found in foods from animals.4
Foods with lots of vitamin D include things like:5
Cod liver oil (1 tablespoon) = 1,360 IU
Swordfish (3 ounces) = 566 IU
Salmon (3 ounces) = 447 IU
Tuna (3 ounces) = 154 IU
Orange juice fortified with vitamin D (1 cup) = 137 IU
Egg yolk (1 large) = 41 IU
If you’re not getting enough vitamin D through your diet, your doctor may recommend a daily vitamin D supplement or monthly injections.
If you're wondering how much vitamin D is enough, the answer depends on a few different factors, like age, skin color, sun exposure and body type (overweight vs. lean). So, while you may need a little more or a little less than your neighbor, the average daily recommended amounts (according to the National Institutes of Health) are:6
|Life Stage||Recommended Amount
mcg = micrograms
IU = international units
|Birth to 12 months||10 mcg (400 IU)|
|Children 1 – 18 years||15 mcg (600 IU)|
|Adults 19 – 70||15 mcg (600 IU)|
|Adults 71 years and older||20 mcg (800 IU)|
It’s important to get your current vitamin D levels checked and talk with your doctor before starting any kind of supplement. A simple blood test will tell you if you’re within a healthy range. Normal (or adequate) vitamin D levels are 20 ng/ml (nanograms per milliliter) or above for most people for good bone and overall health.4
Vitamin D deficiency can have some pretty serious consequences. While symptoms are usually subtle, you may notice things like:7
Frequent sickness or infection
Bone and back pain
Slow healing from an injury
Low vitamin D can increase your risk for things like:
Death from cardiovascular disease
High blood pressure
Severe asthma (in kids)
It’s possible to get too much of a good thing. Because vitamin D is fat-soluble, your body can’t flush out the excess like it could with a water-soluble vitamin. So, too much vitamin D can build up and cause things like:1
Nausea and vomiting
Poor appetite and weight loss
Confusion and disorientation
Heart rhythm problems
- Kidney stones and kidney damage
When should I see my doctor if I’m concerned about my vitamin D levels?
If you’re noticing vitamin D deficiency symptoms, you might want to see your doctor and ask to get your levels checked. You likely get your vitamin D checked each year when you have your annual blood work done, so you could wait until your physical if symptoms aren’t severe. You know your body best. If you think something is really off, head in to see your primary care provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly exam).
- Vitamin D | mayoclinic.org
- 9 vitamin D benefits you should know — and how to get more in your diet | health.com
- Time for more vitamin D | Harvard Health
- Vitamin D | The Nutrition Source | hsph.harvard.edu
- Vitamin D Deficiency: Symptoms & Treatment | my.clevelandclinic.org
- Vitamin D - Health Professional Fact Sheet | ods.od.nih.gov
- 8 Signs and Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency | healthline.com