Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin, is surrounded by mystery and confusion. This seemingly super nutrient is linked to everything from bone health to enhanced immunity.
Unfortunately, getting enough of this critical nutrient is difficult through food alone. Our bodies make D from the sun, but sun exposure can increase your risk of other ailments, including premature aging and skin cancer.
"The wavelength of sunlight that's required for the body to make vitamin D is the same wavelength that leads to sunburn," says Laurie Kohen, M.D., a dermatologist at Henry Ford Health.
How To Safely Get Enough Vitamin D
So what’s the best and safest way to get sufficient vitamin D? We asked Dr. Kohen to provide all of the D essentials:
Q: Why is vitamin D so unique among supplements?
A: Vitamin D acts more like a hormone than a vitamin. Unlike other vitamins, our bodies have the unique ability to make vitamin D from the sun. Studies suggest a link between vitamin D and a healthy immune system. It enhances our bodies' ability to absorb calcium and reduces our risk of fractures and broken bones. Vitamin D also helps regulate our mood. A deficiency could be one of the key players in seasonal affective disorder.
Q: How can you get enough vitamin D if you always wear sunscreen?
A: For most people, avoiding the sun's harmful rays is more important than trying to synthesize vitamin D. In fact, many people who sit out in the sun develop sunburns, sun damage and atypical moles. If you're concerned about getting adequate vitamin D, talk to your doctor. Don't hit the lake to sunbathe.
Q: Why are so many people deficient in vitamin D?
A: Vitamin D is a tough-to-get nutrient, especially if you're relying on food alone. Fatty fish and certain types of mushrooms are decent sources. Other than that, only fortified foods like milk, yogurt, cereal and some brands of orange juice contain vitamin D.
Q: What is the best way to get sufficient vitamin D?
A: Foods can help boost vitamin D levels, but the best way to ensure you're getting enough is to take a daily supplement. Most multivitamins have between 600 and 800 IUs of vitamin D (the daily recommendation is 600 IUs for adults). Before you decide on a dose, talk to your doctor. Certain populations, such as people with darker skin and the elderly, require higher amounts of vitamin D than others.
Q: What are some signs of vitamin D deficiency?
A: The most obvious symptom is brittle bones, including a condition called osteopenia (thinning bones), osteoporosis and the childhood disease rickets (soft bones). But deficiency also manifests as muscle weakness, fatigue, depression and reduced immunity.
Be Vitamin D Savvy
Sadly, most people don't get sufficient vitamin D, especially those who live in Michigan. Because of where Michigan lies latitude-wise, it’s hard to get enough sun, so nearly everyone in the state is vitamin D deficient at baseline. According to some estimates, nearly 70 percent of Americans have blood levels that indicate vitamin D deficiency. Those numbers are even higher among the elderly and people who have chronic health conditions.
Concerned that you might fall into an at-risk category for D deficiency? "Talk with your doctor," suggests Dr. Kohen. "Together you can determine how much vitamin D you need to take daily." Your doctor may order tests to assess your baseline D levels and suggest a dose accordingly.
Just keep in mind that you can get too much of a good thing. Excess vitamin D can lead to nausea, vomiting, weight loss and other ailments.
Dr. Laurie Kohen is a dermatologist and sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center locations in Detroit and Troy.