Vitamin D: What You Need to Know

Vitamin D: What You Need to Know

We hear a lot about Vitamin D, especially once fall and winter roll around. The darker days can make it harder to get your daily dose of vitamin D, as it is an essential fat-soluble vitamin made naturally in the skin from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

But why is Vitamin D so important in the first place? And how can we ensure we’re getting enough in the absence of the sunny days of spring and summer?

How Is Vitamin D Made?

Almost every system in the body has a finger in the pie when it comes to making vitamin D. When sunlight falls on your skin, it converts cholesterol within the skin into a form of vitamin D3 called calciol. Calciol travels to the liver, where it is turned into calcidiol (25-hydroxyvitamin D3), the inactive form of vitamin D3 that is circulated and stored in the body. The kidneys convert calcidiol into the active form of vitamin D3 called calcitriol. You also absorb vitamin D in the large intestine.

What Does Vitamin D Do?

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, and the two nutrients work together to help you maintain healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin D also helps your muscles, nerves and immune system work properly. It helps white blood cells recognize foreign invaders and may also influence the release of protective proteins when needed.

As well, vitamin D3 protects neurons to promote healthy cognitive function. This nutrient is in a class of its own, with receptors everywhere in the body, including the muscles and heart – a hint that it plays a role in many more physical functions than we know.

Where Can You Get Vitamin D?

Sunshine

It is called the “sunshine vitamin”, after all. Your body makes vitamin D, but only when your skin is exposed to sunlight. The sun’s rays set off a chemical reaction in your body that ends in vitamin D. Be sure to expose your skin to the sun for 15-20 minutes a day – especially your calves and forearms.

It’s important to know that wearing sunscreen interferes with the process, though that’s no reason to skip sun protection! Other things that affect your body’s ability to make vitamin D from sunlight: light filtered through windows, higher latitudes, winter, and darker skin (because skin pigment blocks sunlight). The process also becomes less efficient with age.

Food

Fatty fish (think salmon), mushrooms, nuts, beans, egg yolks, and liver all contain small amounts of vitamin D. One egg yolk offers up about 40 IUs of vitamin D – but since the RDA is 600 IUs, sunshine and supplements are still your best bet.

UV Lamps and Lightbulbs

If you’re at high risk for vitamin D deficiency – say, you live in Vancouver in November – a UV emitting device might be your answer. But they’re the same technology as tanning beds, just on a smaller scale, so they should be used on a doctor’s advice, and with protective eye gear.

Supplements

If you live North of California, chances are you don’t see the sun as much as you’d like in the winter months. If, for any reason, you’re not getting sun exposure, add a vitamin D supplement to your routine.

Look for a liquid vitamin D supplement (because vitamin D is absorbed best in the presence of fat), and double check that you’re getting D3 (cholecalciferol) and not D2 (ergocalciferol), Vegans, rather than take D2, seek out vegan D3 sourced from plant lichens.

Do You Need A Vitamin D Supplement?

If any of the following apply to you, check in with your doctor or nutritionist – they can test for vitamin D in your blood to see if you need to up your intake – and by how much:

  • Low levels of vitamin D
  • Lack of sun exposure, due to inclement weather, winter, or shift work
  • Living in a Northern climate
  • Adults over 50, since which decreases the body’s ability to make vitamin D
  • Vegetarian or vegan diet
  • Darker skin tone

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