What’s the Deal with Vitamin D?

A container of vitamin D capsules.

You probably know that vitamin D is important. It’s vital to bone health, muscle movement, nerve connections to the brain, and immune system functions. (Image: via Pixabay)

You probably know that vitamin D is important. It’s vital to bone health, muscle movement, nerve connections to the brain, and immune system function. Studies suggest it also may help protect you from infections (including COVID) and major diseases like cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes, and dementia. Because it’s often in the news and is available on store shelves, taking this seems like an easy way to bolster your health. But is it? Endocrinologist John Bilezikian, M.D., answered common questions about vitamin D to explain what it can and cannot do. 

What is vitamin D? 

This vitamin, like all vitamins, is a nutrient that’s essential for life. Your body produces active vitamin D after exposure to sunlight, and you get some from food. It is also a hormone. Hormones help control how cells and organs function. However, we do not call vitamin D “hormone D” because without it, we cannot live. Latin lesson: vita means life. 

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Because it’s often in the news and is available on store shelves, vitamin D seems like an easy way to bolster your health.
Because it’s often in the news and is available on store shelves, vitamin D seems like an easy way to bolster your health. But is it? (Image: via Pixabay)

Vitamins D3 vs. D2 

Two forms of vitamin D are available in supplements: vitamin D3 and vitamin D2. Both can help correct a deficiency, but most doctors recommend D3 because it is slightly more active and therefore slightly more effective. Vitamin D3 is naturally produced by animals, including humans. Vitamin D2 is the plant form. Using the form made in our bodies is another reason for recommending vitamin D3.  

What does it do? 

It makes your body better at absorbing other nutrients, namely calcium and phosphorus, both important for bone health. It also helps to restore and maintain the calcium in your bones, where 99 percent of it resides. Without sufficient vitamin D, bones can become weak and fragile. Some studies show a possible connection between this vitamin and protection against cancer, heart disease, bacterial and viral infections, COVID, and more. But more research is needed to substantiate these links.  

Why is it in the news? 

A recent study on the use of vitamin D supplements in reducing the risk of fractures showed taking it had no effect on the rate of broken bones in 25,000 healthy people who had enough in their bodies naturally and had no known bone problems. This study has been widely quoted as “proving” that supplements are not needed. However, the study was not designed to address the many individuals with vitamin D deficiency, for whom it might well be helpful. It is self-evident that giving more to people with normal levels is unlikely to be beneficial. This study does not provide any information about individuals who have low levels of this vitamin.   

Vitamin D: the sun vitamin  

The primary source of this is sunlight. Your skin produces this vitamin after sun exposure, depending on the sun’s intensity and angle. People who live closest to the equator have the best exposure to vitamin D. In regions farther from the equator, particularly in the winter, the sun’s rays are less effective. 

Vitamin D and the sun 

If you live in New York and the surrounding area: 

  • From October to April: The sun provides minimal or no Vitamin D, regardless of the time spent outdoors.  
    • This is when supplements are vital. 
  • From May to September: 15-20 minutes of sun a day is enough.
    • Remember to put sunblock on immediately after this sun exposure.  
  • If you’re over the age of 70, you may need more than 20 minutes because your skin does not make this vitamin as well as it did when you were younger. 
The primary source of vitamin D is sunlight.
The primary source of vitamin D is sunlight. Our skin produces it after sun exposure, depending on the sun’s intensity and angle. (Image: Pixabay)

Wherever you live, you’re probably thinking that spending more time in the sun is good for your bones. That’s true, but this vitamin must be activated in the body to work. After getting it from the sun or a supplement, the body uses a two-step biochemical process — starting in the liver and ending in the kidneys — to convert it to active vitamin D. When bodies can’t activate it, deficiencies occur. This is particularly important for individuals who have advanced kidney or liver disease.  

What happens if you do not have enough vitamin D 

If you do not have enough of this vitamin, your body doesn’t absorb the calcium in your food. If your body does not absorb calcium from food, bones become a source of calcium. The body is always seeking the level it needs and takes calcium where it can get it. The result: loss of calcium from your bones. The average healthy person loses about 500 milligrams of calcium every day from bones and replaces it with the same amount of new calcium. When someone is vitamin D-deficient, calcium is not replaced adequately, which leads to weak and fragile bones. 

How do you know if you’re deficient in this vitamin? 

Measuring the form of vitamin D made in the liver, called 25-hydroxyvitamin D, is the best way to find out whether you are deficient. Ask your doctor if you should do a blood test to check your 25-hydroxyvitamin D level. Bone density tests measure how much calcium is in bones. Low bone density signals a condition called osteoporosis. A severe deficiency can be a sign of osteomalacia (Greek lesson: soft bones). In children, a severe deficiency appears as rickets. 

When is the best time to measure your level?  

Your lowest level is likely to be in the middle of winter. Measure then. If you start taking in sun or supplements, measure again two to three months later. It takes about that long to get to a steady level.  

Foods with vitamin D  

Few foods contain this vitamin, unless it’s been added (adding nutrients to food is called fortification). Orange juice, milk, yogurt, and cereal are often fortified with this vitamin. Check labels. To minimize processing, many organic products are not fortified. However, it is naturally present in fish, especially fatty, oily fish like salmon. Choose wild over farmed when you can: A study showed farmed salmon had about 25 percent of the content as wild salmon. You can also get it from fish liver oils. It’s best to get nutrients through natural sources, but vitamin D is vitamin D: Get it however you can. 

Few foods contain vitamin D, unless it’s been added.
Few foods contain vitamin D, unless it’s been added (adding nutrients to food is called fortification). Orange juice, milk, yogurt, and cereal are often fortified with it. (Image: Pixabay)

How much should you take?  

If you’re not getting enough vitamin D from the sun or food, you can take pills, capsules, drops, or other forms. Many multivitamins contain this vitamin. How much you need depends on factors like age and health issues. Talk to your doctor. Celiac disease and other conditions associated with the malabsorption of food make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients. People with these conditions and who have had gastrointestinal tract surgeries need more of this vitamin. 

  • For people over the age of 70, the daily recommendation is 800 IU (20 mcg). 
  • For people below the age of 70, it’s 600 IU (15 mcg).  

These recommendations meet the bone health needs of most people. In most situations, taking more than 4,000 units per day is not recommended. 

The most important thing to know

This vitamin plays an important role in health, but it’s just one vitamin people need. Simply taking this vitamin alone will not fix everything that might be wrong with your health. 

Provided by Columbia University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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