How Important is Vitamin D?
The answer might surprise you.
Walk into any major department store, nutrition outlet, or pharmacy, and you will find shelves lined with vitamins.
There are vitamins for your heart, vitamins for your brain, multi-vitamins, children’s vitamins, men’s and women’s vitamins, and even tasty vitamin gummies.
It’s no wonder that everyone is so confused about what vitamins they need.
One of the most common vitamin deficiencies is vitamin D, but the amount that you need to stay healthy, and the benefits that come from making sure you get enough of it, might just make ‘D’ your number one priority when it comes to taking your vitamins.
The What, Where, & Why of Vitamin D
Since you now understand that vitamin D is one of the more important vitamins, you might be asking the question, ‘How much vitamin D should I take?”
The answer is, more than you probably are getting right now.
Understanding why starts with an explanation of what vitamin D is, and how you currently get it.
Vitamin D is actually produced in your body.
It can be created when your skin is exposed to sunlight.
In fact, the Sunshine Vitamin, as it is commonly known, is created in your skin, and it is so important to the healthy function of the human body that every single cell you have contains a receptor for it.
Asking how much vitamin D do I need is not nearly as important as knowing what it does.
Think of vitamin D as a steroid hormone produced by the body with some very specific (and extremely important) jobs.
This group of secosteroids is responsible for bone, immune, and skin health, and a whole lot more.
So, how much vitamin D should I take?
When health care providers measure how much vitamin D you are taking, they usually do not count the vitamin D that you receive from exposing skin to the sun.
That’s because sun damage from exposure outweighs getting enough vitamin D from sunshine.
Instead, experts simply recommend that you get your vitamin D through other sources.
Why is Vitamin D Deficiency so Common?
The simple answer to this question is that enough people aren’t asking the question: education is definitely the first step in ensuring that everyone gets enough vitamin D, and prevents the myriad problems caused by not having high enough levels.
More people need to be asking ‘How much vitamin D do I need?’
Right now, around 42% of the population does not get enough vitamin D.
But infants, younger women, and elderly folk are particularly at risk and are at a much higher percentage than the general population (3).
Even more disturbing are the statistics regarding dark-skinned persons.
Those groups obviously are part of the reason why this deficiency is so common, as such high percentages skew the numbers, but another reason why this problem is so commonplace is that there are very few foods that actually contain vitamin D, and most people are not aware of what they are.
Basically, the main reason why this is such a major problem is a combination of several factors including: lack of education, poor diet, difficulty in obtaining enough vitamin D through sun exposure (particularly for dark-skinned people), and the unfortunate truth that most people do not even add a basic multivitamin to their diet.
Consequences of Insufficient Levels of Vitamin D
There is a long, scary list of consequences that come from not maintaining proper levels of vitamin D.
In addition to bone problems, vitamin D deficiency can have a significant impact on the immune system of people of all ages.
Plus, anyone that has a risk for any type of cancer should be even more concerned, as vitamin D is one of the substances that protect against cancer, as well as Type II Diabetes, MS, thyroid problems, and even chronic high blood pressure (11,12,13,14,15).
How Much Vitamin D Should I Take?
Appropriate vitamin D dosage varies from person to person.
There is no way to come up with a one-size-fits-all number because how much you need to supplement will depend upon how much you are currently getting from exposure to direct sunlight and diet.
In addition, factors like race, geographic location, gender, and age all need to be factored in.
But for most people, erring on the side of more rather than less is recommended.
You should be taking in a total of 400-800 international units (IU) of vitamin D each and every day.
- Measuring Vitamin D through Optimal Blood Levels
If you are working with your healthcare professional, you may have an advantage in determining how much vitamin D you need.
Your provider can measure the current levels of vitamin D in your blood and then advise you how much you need to add.
This number will change throughout the year, as well as when factors like your geographic location changes.
- Sufficient Amount of Vitamin D: 25(OH)D > 20 ng/ml (> 50 nmol/l)
- Insufficient Amount of Vitamin D: 25(OH)D <20 ng/ml (<50 nmol/l)
- Serious Vitamin D Deficiency: 25(OH)D < 12 ng/ml (< 25 nmol/l). (19, 20)
Sources of Vitamin D
Now we’ll cover some sources of vitamin D, starting with the most common way to create it, i.e. through exposure to direct sunlight on bare skin.
For those who spend a great deal of time tanning outdoors in direct sunlight, the chances are much higher of getting vitamin D that the body needs.
However, it is important to know that tanning beds not only are an extremely poor substitute for direct sun exposure, but the amount of tanning you would need from a tanning bed to get sufficient levels of vitamin D would almost certainly cause skin cancer.
Believe it or not, it doesn’t actually take that much exposure to produce enough vitamin D for your daily requirement.
Exposure for about 20 minutes when the sun is directly overhead will provide light-skinned people with vitamin D that they need.
Those that are darker-skinned will need longer exposure.
In addition, you need to be aware of factors like location, clothing covering, and season.
For example, during the winter months, none of the people living in countries north of 35 degrees N will be able to produce vitamin D at all, and in countries that are extremely north like Norway, for most of the year, it will be impossible for the body to produce vitamin D (21,22,23).
Also, traveling to sunny destinations will help you with vitamin D deficiency.
The second source that we’ll discuss in this article is diet.
You may remember that most people find it difficult to get enough vitamin D through their diet because there are so few foods that actually have vitamin D.
But it doesn’t take much to get the vitamin D necessary from your diet, and adding the kinds of foods that contain vitamin D is something that you should be doing anyway (24).
The list of foods that naturally contain vitamin D includes egg yolks, many of the cheeses that you eat every day, and beef liver.
In addition, tuna, salmon, and mackerel all contain vitamin D, as well as other fatty fish.
In addition, in some countries, milk, orange juice, and other products are infused with vitamin D specifically to combat the insufficient levels in most people’s bloodstream.
Finally, we’re going to discuss the introduction of vitamin D into the body through the use of supplements.
You definitely want to take supplements if you are not getting enough vitamin D through your diet and through direct exposure to sunlight.
However, you need to be working with your healthcare provider to make sure that you know the levels of vitamin D that you are currently receiving and that you get enough but not too much.
Use the charts provided with this article to determine how much you need, and discuss factors like age, gender, location, and more with your healthcare provider.
Why Sun Exposure Alone isn’t Enough
When it comes to getting vitamin D from sun exposure, most people aren’t getting enough.
We have covered that extensively throughout this article.
But there are some great strategies in this article for combating this lack of vitamin D production.
It is also important to understand that, in some cases, sunlight exposure actually is enough.
The thing to remember is that vitamin D levels can balance out throughout the year.
So, if you have little or no vitamin D production during the winter months, you might be able to make up for it during the summer months with nothing more than natural exposure during the season.
Obviously, this will depend upon race and the other factors mentioned.
If you’re in a geographic location like Norway, and if you have dark skin, you may have to spend a great deal more time in the sun during the summer months for vitamin D dosage than someone with fair skin in a different part of the world (25).
But it is important to know that you could conceivably get enough vitamin D through direct sunlight if you spend at least part of each day outdoors during the summer.
How Much Vitamin D Can I Take?
Instead of asking ‘How much vitamin D should I take,’ patients should be monitoring their levels by knowing how much they are taking in by all three of the sources covered here.
Although there is such a thing as too much vitamin D in the bloodstream, those levels are so high that most people will never get anywhere near them, and in fact, most will still be slightly deficient.
The question ‘How much vitamin D can I take,’ is somewhat moot.
The only real danger that has been demonstrated in actual patients occurred in individuals that were taking in massive amounts of vitamin D, on the order of 500,000 to 1,000,000 International Units.
The actually recommended maximum is about 4000 IU per day or a total of around 100 micrograms.
So, let’s go over again the key points about vitamin D intake.
First, understand that vitamin D is important.
Getting enough vitamin D has a major impact on your health, protecting you against osteoporosis and other bone conditions and certain types of cancers, and even boosting your immune system.
But you can’t always rely on your body producing enough vitamin D through sun exposure alone, even though that’s the primary way our bodies get vitamin D.
You have to be aware of the various factors that affect how much of the vitamin you make and determine whether you need to supplement your vitamin D production through your diet; and, if necessary, to get vitamin D through supplements as well.
Work with your healthcare provider, and try to estimate how much vitamin D you are already getting.
There are a lot of reasons to ensure that your body is getting all of the vitamins and minerals that it needs, but vitamin D is definitely one of the most important ones.
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