In many places around the world, vitamin D is not something people think about. It’s known as the sunshine vitamin and until recently, think last 50 years, we weren’t really too concerned about getting enough of it because hey, the sun is all around us.
All that has changed as more light is being shed on the importance of this crucial nutrient and we are realizing that a large portion of the population is just not getting enough.
Our bodies make vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight but why is it important, how much do we really need, who is most at risk for deficiencies and what are some other sources other than sunlight.
Why is Vit D Important?
Vit D promotes calcium absorption in the gut and maintains proper levels of calcium and phosphate concentration in the blood. What does that mean?
It means that without vitamin D, your body cannot absorb the calcium from your food (this includes supplemental calcium).
Calcium is super important to help bones remineralize properly and prevent the breakdown and weakening of bones.
Without enough vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle or misshapen. This is particularly important in children and the elderly. Vitamin D helps prevent rickets in children and osteomalacia and osteoporosis in adults.
Vitamin D also promotes cell growth and regeneration, neuromuscular and immune function and the reduction of inflammation. Super important for all sorts of inflammatory conditions like arthritis, acne and even polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and insulin resistance.
Additionally, vitamin D has been linked to helping to boost positive mood, particularly in the late fall and early winter months as these are the times people are particularly prone to mood sensitivities. Vitamin D can be used to mediate symptoms of the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
How Much Sun Exposure do You Need?
For most people, sun exposure is an easy and reliable way to get enough vitamin D. Yet many people are still deficient in this key vitamin.
Some of the reasons for this include busy lives that require a lot of time spent indoors working at desk jobs. As well many people cover up outside or wear lots of sunscreen as a result of skin cancer concerns.
In order to get enough vitamin D, it is important to expose large parts of your body such as arms, legs and torso to sunlight two to three times a week for about one quarter of the time it would take you to develop a mild sunburn.
This will vary from person to person based on age, skin type, the season and time of day so this is a good rough estimate to help you calculate how much you need. Make sure you do not have sunscreen on during this time.
Who is Most at Risk for Vitamin D Deficiency?
The amount of vitamin D made by the body is closely related to time spent outdoors, so those that work mostly inside may be at risk. As well, people living in northern parts of the world where sunlight can be limited to certain times of the year (like us in Canada!).
Those with a darker completion who require more time outdoors may also be at risk. Additionally, the older you get, the higher the risk of deficiency because not only do you tend to spend less time in the sun, but you also have fewer receptors on their skin to convert sunlight to vitamin D.
As well, many people are not be getting enough through their diets or are have trouble absorbing vitamin D and converting it to the active form because of poor dietary choices or impaired kidney function.
So if you’re not getting enough, how much should you supplement?
Adequate levels of vitamin D can be restored in the body fairly quickly. Just 6 days of casual sunlight exposure without sunscreen can make up to 49 days of no sunlight exposure. This is because our bodies store vitamin D in fat cells during times of exposure and release it when the sunlight is gone.
Your body can store up to several months of vitamin D. This means that if you live in Canada and get the necessary amount of sunlight during the summer months (June, July, Aug), around December you need to start supplementing as your reserves will be depleted. (Or feel free to use your need for vitamin D as an excuse to getaway to sunnier locales).
While the recommended daily intake from the government is 1000IU per day, this is the absolute minimum required. I recommend taking 2000-5000IU daily and for conditions such as PCOS, 10,000IU is recommended (make sure to work with a practitioner to see if this is right for you).
I won’t lie, there are some pretty ineffective vitamin D’s on the market so I would recommend CanPrev or Prairie Naturals (both available at the health food store or online). Both of these brands are pure with vitamin D3 (the active form) suspended in MCT (medium chain triglycerides aka coconut oil) or organic extra virgin olive oil.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble, so it is important for absorption that it be contained in a healthy fat like coconut oil or olive oil.
Eat Your Vitamin D
Fatty fish such as salmon, trout and tuna can be a good source of vitamin D. A 3oz fillet has about 450IU and bonus, you also get your daily dose of healthy fatty acids.
Important to note is that wild-caught specifies will have higher levels of vitamin D (and fatty acids) because these fish are able to eat and live a more natural lifestyle. Farmed fish are mainly fed GMO soy and corn and kept in crowded pens which doesn’t give the fish much opportunity to produce their own vitamin D which we can then benefit from.
Mushrooms are another great option. Just like humans, mushrooms can produce vitamin D when exposed to light. Since most mushrooms are grown in the dark, you’ll want to find mushrooms grown in ultraviolet light which spurs the production of vitamin D. Dole portobello mushrooms are grown in ultraviolet light.
Mushrooms are a great plant-based source with about 1 cup of diced mushrooms providing 400IU of vitamin D.
And when it comes to adequate nutrition, every little bit counts so remember, egg yolks have about 40IU per yolk.
As well, ultraviolet light boxes (SAD boxes) are another option if you live in places that doesn’t get enough sunlight during the winter months or you spend a lot of time indoors.
Research continues to be published on the importance of vitamin D, going so far as to relabel this crucial nutrient as a hormone because of it’s ability to turn certain genes on and off and send messages to cells in the body. That’s pretty important stuff so make sure you get enough.