Updated: May 16, 2022
Chances are you've heard about the Sunshine vitamin in the past few years. It's become a bit of a star in the nutrition world, as it was discovered it may play an important role in bone health, immunity, heart function, cancer prevention, and many other conditions. It's an unusual vitamin because your skin produces it when exposed to the sun's UVB rays, which is where much of our vitamin D comes from. Some foods do naturally contain vitamin D, but it can be hard to get an adequate amount through diet alone.
Vitamin D (also referred to as “calciferol”) is a fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally present in a few foods, added to others, and available as a dietary supplement. It is also produced endogenously when ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight strike the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis. We need vitamin D to help the body absorb calcium and phosphate from our diet. These minerals are important for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. A lack of vitamin D, known as vitamin D deficiency, can cause bones to become soft and weak, which can lead to bone deformities. In children, for example, a lack of vitamin D can lead to rickets. In adults, it can lead to osteomalacia, which causes bone pain and tenderness.
Vitamin D insufficiency affects almost 50% of the population worldwide. An estimated 1 billion people worldwide, across all ethnicities and age groups, have a vitamin D deficiency (VDD). This can mainly be attributed to lifestyle (for example, reduced outdoor activities) and environmental (for example, air pollution) factors that reduce exposure to sunlight, which is required for ultraviolet-B (UVB)-induced vitamin D production in the skin. Current studies suggest that we may need more vitamin D than presently recommended to prevent chronic disease.
How Vitamin D benefits the body
Vitamin D is best known for promoting healthy bones and teeth. The human body can only absorb calcium, the primary component of bone, when vitamin D is present. Vitamin D is both a vitamin and a hormone. Kids have growing bones, so if they don’t get enough vitamin D, their bones aren’t fortified.
Vitamin D production in the skin from sunlight exposure also declines with advancing age, making elderly populations more dependent on the dietary supplements. Additionally, because vitamin D deficiency is also linked to parathyroid metabolism, women become especially prone as they go through menopause and lose estrogen
Vitamin D also regulates many other cellular functions, with its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and neuro-protective properties supporting immune health, muscle function and brain cell activity.
In addition to its primary benefits, research suggests that vitamin D may also play a role in reducing the risk of multiple sclerosis (MS). Low vitamin D levels have been linked to increased risk of heart diseases such as hypertension, heart failure, and stroke. People who do not have adequate vitamin D levels might be at increased risk of infections and autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease.
How to get Vitamin D
A person can get vitamin D in three ways - through the skin, from their diet, and from supplements.
Some time in the sun is recommended, but given that too much sun exposure can lead to skin cancer, food may be a better source. Obtaining sufficient vitamin D from natural food sources alone is difficult. Consumption of vitamin D-fortified foods and exposure to some sunlight are essential for maintaining a healthy vitamin D status. Dietary supplements might be required to meet the daily need for vitamin D in some group of people.
A few foods – including fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, mushrooms, and egg yolks – naturally carry the nutrient. It can also be found in fortified foods and beverages, such as milk, breakfast cereals, orange juice, yogurt, and soy drinks. Vitamin D is also added to all infant formula milk, as well as some breakfast cereals, fat spreads and non-dairy milk alternatives.
People also get vitamin D from multivitamins and supplements, which come in both pill and liquid form for infants.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the daily recommended amount of vitamin D is 400 IU for infants up to 12 months old, 600 IU for children and adults up to 70 years old as well as breastfeeding women, and 800 IU for adults who are at least 71 years old.
The standard treatment for vitamin D deficiency involves supplements. Depending on an individual’s condition, their health care provider will recommend how much they need to take, how often they need to take it, and how long they need to take it.
Vitamin D2 vs. D3: What’s the Difference?
Vitamin D is more than just one vitamin. It’s a family of nutrients that shares similarities in chemical structure. In your diet, the most commonly found members are vitamin D2 and D3. While both types help you meet your vitamin D requirements, they differ in a few important ways.
Vitamin D3 is only found in animal-sourced foods, whereas D2 mainly comes from plant sources and fortified foods. Sources of Vitamin D3 are oily fish and fish oil, liver and egg yolk. Sources of Vitamin D2 are mushrooms and fortified foods. Since Vitamin D2 is cheaper to produce, it’s the most common form in fortified foods.
Calcifediol is the main circulating form of vitamin D, and its blood levels reflect your body’s stores of this nutrient. For this reason, your health care provider can estimate your vitamin D status by measuring your levels of calcifediol. However, vitamin D2 seems to yield less calcifediol than an equal amount of vitamin D3. If you are taking vitamin D supplements, consider choosing vitamin D3.
Vitamin D has many potential benefits. It may reduce the risk of certain diseases, help improve mood and reduce depression symptoms, and help with weight management.
It’s hard to get enough vitamin D through your diet alone, so you may want to ask go for a blood test and consider taking a vitamin D supplement.
About the authors
Madur & Anitha Jagannath are certified Nutrition Consultants, in addition to their professions in technology and human resources. When Madur started feeling lethargic and slowing down, he started exercising regularly, became conscious of healthy eating habits and nutrition. He is an avid runner and does half-marathons often. At Voyage to Wellness, they attribute our reputation to the lasting customer relationships they have developed throughout the years. They believe in health & wellness and being fit, at all stages of people's lives.
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