This summer, when you go out to catch the sun, spare a thought for vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’. This is because our body produces it when exposed to sun. As a vitamin, it is fat soluble and is actually a compound vitamin that includes five different elements (vitamin D1 to D5). It affects some 2,000 different genes in the body.
It is vital to get sufficient vitamin D in order to make sure phosphorus and calcium absorption is right. In so doing, it helps to ensure teeth and bones are healthy. Additionally, it protects against a range of other diseases and disorders.
Some of the roles of vitamin D include:
• Maintains bone and teeth health
• Supports the immune system, the nervous system and the brain
• Helps manage diabetes
• Supports cardiovascular and pulmonary health
• Slows down cancer development in some cases
Interestingly, vitamin D is not really a vitamin. Rather, it is a pro-hormone. This is because the body can actually produce it, so long as it is exposed to the sun. However, as most of us no longer receive sufficient sunlight due to our lifestyles, most of us need supplementation. This has been known for around a century, since when many dairy products became fortified.
Uses and Benefits of Vitamin D
There are a number of important things to understand about the role of vitamin D. Most importantly it enables our body to absorb phosphorous and calcium. This, in turn, helps the immune system to function properly. Additionally, it helps in the proper growth of teeth and bones. Without vitamin D, you can develop osteoporosis and osteomalacia.
Some Fast Facts
1. The main role of vitamin D is to develop and maintain teeth and bones.
2. A Caucasian person can synthesize 20,000 IU in just 20 minutes of direct sun exposure.
3. Around 60% of people in the developed world have a vitamin deficiency.
4. Deficiency is involved in as many as 80% of hip fractures.
5. Taking just 800 IU of the vitamin each day can lower the chance of hip fractures in the elderly by 20%, as well as lower the chance of falls.
6. Vitamin D’s metabolism can be affected by various medications and drugs.
Vitamin D Health Benefits
A number of health benefits are associated with vitamin D. These include:
1. Healthy bones – vitamin D regulates phosphorus and calcium, which in turn maintain healthy bones and teeth. Without vitamin D, calcium would be excreted by the kidneys. Children with vitamin D deficiency may develop rickets. Adults can develop osteoporosis and osteomalacia.
2. Protection from flu – Children taking 1,200 IU of the vitamin during the winter months were shown to reduce their chance of catching the flu by 40%.
3. Lower chance of diabetes – A number of studies have seen that the risk of type 2 diabetes is higher in those who have a vitamin D deficiency. For type 1 diabetes, the same is true. Supplemented children reduced their chance of developing type 1 by age 32 by as much as 88%.
4. Improve the health of infants – Studies have shown that it reduces their levels of arterial wall stiffness. Those who have a deficiency are also at a higher risk of developing a range of allergic diseases and atopic childhood diseases.
5. Having a healthy pregnancy – Taking a vitamin D supplement can reduce the chance of pregnancy and birth complications. The jury is still out, however, at what IU this should be, with some suggesting between 2,000 and 4,000 and others indicating that it should be at least 4,000.
6. Cancer prevention – Vitamin D helps to regulate the growth of cells and the communication between cells. Calcitriol, which is the active form of the hormone vitamin D can slow down the progression of various types of cancers.
7. Better muscle function – Research has shown that adequate levels of vitamin D can help prevent muscle soreness after workouts.
8. Lower appetite – It is known that people often feel fat during spring time, when their levels of vitamin D are at the lowest. The good news is that vitamin D increases the leptin hormone, which is important in terms of lowering feelings of hunger and increasing metabolism.
9. Weight loss benefits – Vitamin D has been shown to improve insulin resistance, vital to weight loss. Additionally, it is easier to stick to a low calorie diet if vitamin D levels are right.
10. Lower blood pressure – This has only recently been uncovered. The effects of vitamin D on blood pressure were particularly prominent in premenopausal women.
Further benefits may also exist, although scientific studies must continue on this. Some suggest that one of these benefits is a reduction in the chance of developing multiple sclerosis. Research also suggest that people with eczema may benefit from vitamin D, as well as people who suffer from excessive hair loss.
How Much Should You Take?
There is some controversy over the recommended intake if vitamin D. It is generally measured in IUs (international unites), but it can also be measured in micrograms, although this is less common. One accepted way of deciding recommended units is based on age. As such:
|Infants up to one year||400 IU|
|Children up to 18 years||600 IU|
|Adults up to the age of 70||600 IU|
|Adults over 70||800 IU|
|Pregnant and lactating women of any age||600 IU|
However, this does not take into account the various other factors that matter, such as ethnic background, geographical location, BMI, work pattern and more.
It is also important to understand that the body should be able to make sufficient vitamin D through sun exposure. Most of us, however, do not get enough of this. One of the reasons for this is that we slather on the sunscreen. Unfortunately, an SPF 8, which is very low, can reduce the body’s ability to synthesize vitamin D by as much as 95%.
It is no surprise, therefore, that so many people decide to supplement their vitamin D, and quite rightly so. It is such an important vitamin that has so many health benefits, that it simply shouldn’t be ignored. However, it is important to do it the right way and this is where most people struggle. For instance, many people think they get sufficient vitamin D because they eat a healthy diet full with fortified dairy in oily fish, but they then lack the magnesium that is also required in order to make sure vitamin D can become active.
Additionally, scientists agree that supplementing is never as effective as natural methods. However, if there really is no chance to receive adequate levels of vitamin D naturally, through diet and sunlight, then supplementation is certainly better. This is particularly true if you are in a high risk for deficiency group, such as if you are older, overweight or have a darker skin tone.
Food Sources of Vitamin D
The table below highlights some of the food sources that you can choose in order to obtain more vitamin D. Many of these are not suitable for vegetarians, or for vegans in particular. It is even more important that those who follow this more restrictive diet find adequate methods of supplementation in order to obtain the benefits of vitamin D.
|Product||Amount||Vitamin D IU|
|Cod liver oil||One tablespoon||1360|
|Fresh, raw herring||Four ounces||1056|
|Cooked swordfish||Four ounces||941|
|Raw Maitake mushrooms||One cup||786|
|Cooked sockeye salmon||Four ounces||596|
|Canned sardines||Four ounces||336|
|Fortified skimmed milk||One cup||120|
|Drained canned in water tuna||Three ounces||86|
|Whole large chicken egg||One egg||44|
The Health Risks
It is undeniable that vitamin D is a fantastic vitamin that has a large number of health benefits. However, it is important to understand that it also has some drawbacks. This is why the official recommendation is to not have more than 4,000 IU per day. At the same time, health professionals agree that it is highly unlikely that someone should suffer side effects from vitamin D unless they go above 10,000 UI per day.
But there are some people who take medication that are adversely affected by vitamin D. There are also some people who are simply more sensitive to it. Every good thing is bad for us when taken to excess, after all. With vitamin D, there is a chance of over-calcification, which can affect the heart, lungs, kidneys and bones. This is known as ‘hypervitaminosis D’ and has the following characteristics:
• Dry mouth
• Loss of appetite
• A metallic taste in the mouth
Vitamin D Deficiency
There are many factors that could lead to a person having a vitamin D deficiency. In fact, it affects some 60% of us. If you do have a deficiency, you will not be able to experience any of the tremendous benefits that the vitamin offers. Some of the factors that can contribute to you having a deficiency include:
• Use of sunscreen
• Environmental pollution
• Working indoors for long hours
• Spending too much time inside the house
• Living in large cities with tall buildings, which block the sunlight
Resources and References:
The Health Benefits of Vitamin D – Effects of vitamin D on health. (Fox News)
Vitamin D: Vital Role in Your Health – Role of vitamin D for good health. (WebMD)
Vitamin D3 – Health benefits of vitamin D3. (Vitamin Research Products)
Benefits of Vitamin D Supplement Still Debated – Advantages of vitamin D supplements. (Harvard Health Publications)