What You Need to Know About Vitamin D

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There’s lots of talk about vitamin D these days.

How much do you need? What are health risks of not getting enough? Can you get your daily dose from the sun?

Doctors more often are testing patients for vitamin D deficiency, and more people are taking supplements to ward off potential ills.

Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which is necessary for bone health, and boosts the immune system. But claims that vitamin D may help prevent a host of other diseases have caused a good deal of confusion, said Dr. Gabrielle Sakellarides, a primary care physician at Mon Health Primary Care in Core, WV.

“Vitamin D deficiency is rather common, and it can lead to loss of bone density, putting you at risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures,” said Dr. Sakellarides.

“Some studies have linked low vitamin D and other diseases, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. But that is an area of debate,” she added. “More definitive research is needed before we can say vitamin D will help prevent these diseases.”

Who’s at risk for vitamin D deficiency?

  • Breast-fed babies
  • Older adults
  • People with certain diseases and conditions, including Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, chronic kidney and liver disease, obesity, osteoporosis and lymphomas. People who’ve had gastric bypass surgery are also at higher risk.

How do I get vitamin D?

There are 3 sources: Foods, sun exposure and supplements.

Not many foods are rich in vitamin D.

Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and swordfish are among the best food sources. A 3-ounce serving of cooked salmon provides about 350 IUs (International Units) of vitamin D. That’s a little more than half the daily-recommended allowance for most people.

The National Academy of Medicine recommends 600 IUs per day for people ages 1 to 70, and 800 IUs for 71 and older.

Other vitamin D foods include:

  • Beef liver
  • Swiss cheese
  • Mushrooms
  • Egg yolks
  • Vitamin D fortified milk and yogurt
  • Sardines
  • Fortified orange juice
  • Fortified cereals

Sun exposure not recommended

Vitamin D is sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin” because ultraviolet rays from the sun trigger vitamin D production in the body.

But Dr. Sakellarides says you shouldn’t try to get your vitamin D that way. The risks of skin cancer from unprotected sun exposure outweigh any vitamin benefits.

Vitamin D Pills

Just 10 to 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure can damage your skin and increase the risk of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

High SPF sunscreens significantly reduce your risk of skin cancer.

“Some people think using sunscreen causes vitamin D deficiency, but that isn’t true,” Dr. Sakellarides said. “If you need a vitamin D boost, don’t skip the sunscreen. The healthiest way to get vitamin D is through diet or supplements.”

Another problem with trying to get vitamin D from the sun is variability. The amount produced depends on time of year, time of day, location and your skin type.

The number of Americans taking vitamin D supplements has increased, but doctors warn that taking too much can have adverse health consequences.

“Your physician will test your vitamin D levels to determine if supplementing is necessary,” said Dr. Sakellarides. “I don’t recommend high doses of vitamin D if your levels are already within range.”