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A regular intake of essential vitamins is a fundamental part of any balanced diet. Unlike other vitamins, vitamin D is only naturally present in a few select foods. Instead, sunlight serves as the primary source for most people. Due to this, vitamin D deficiency affects a large percent of the population. Understanding vitamin D, its benefits, and how it supports our bodies can help to maintain well-rounded dietary habits.
WHAT IS VITAMIN D?
Vitamin D (also known as “calciferol”) is a fat-soluble vitamin that we primarily get from sunlight, appears naturally in some species of fish, and is often added to milk, milk substitutes, cereals, and yogurt. Vitamin D deficiency affects a large percent of our population, it is estimated that more than one billion people are vitamin D insufficient or deficient.
WHY DO WE NEED VITAMIN D?
Necessary for strong bones and a healthy digestive system, vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium in bones and phosphorus in the small intestine. According to the National Institutes of Health, bones can become thinner and more brittle without a regular intake of vitamin D, making people with vitamin D deficiencies more susceptible to breaks and fractures. In addition to bone health, vitamin D helps reduce inflammation, supports the immune system, and promotes glucose metabolism.
Vitamin D is crucial for the health of all ages, as it helps prevent rickets in children, osteomalacia in adults, and osteoporosis in older adults.
SOURCES OF VITAMIN D
Few foods naturally hold a sufficient amount to fulfill the daily requirements for vitamin D, making sunlight the primary source for most. Fish such as salmon, halibut, trout, and canned tuna are among the best sources of vitamin D. While milk and egg yolks are also a good source, they provide a significantly smaller amount per serving. Due to the fact that vitamin D-rich foods tend to be animal products, vegetarians and vegans are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency. However, there are fortified foods with added vitamin D, such as some cereals, milk alternatives, orange juice, and yogurt.
HOW MUCH VITAMIN D DO WE NEED?
No matter your age, vitamin D is a fundamental part of keeping the body functioning. The amount of vitamin D required daily depends on your age, whether or not you are nursing or pregnant, and what medications you take.
Recommended Daily Intake (according to the National Institutes of Health)
- Birth to 1 year – 400 IU/day (10 mcg)
- Between 1 and 70 years – 600 IU/day (15 mcg)
- Over 70 years – 800 IU/day (20 mcg)
- Pregnant and nursing women – 600 IU/day (15 mcg
CAUSES OF VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY
A lack of daily exposure to sunlight and excluding fish from meals are the most common reasons for vitamin D deficiency. Sunlight can be harder to get for those living in colder climates with few sunny days, people with mental illnesses such as depression, young children, and the elderly, which is why deficiency is most common within those groups.
Vitamin D deficiency is also common in those with related medical conditions such as kidney and liver diseases, obesity, Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and cystic fibrosis. Since these conditions affect the parts of the body vitamin D supports, supplementation may be necessary to maintain healthy bones and digestive functions.
Common symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include weakness, mood swings, and fatigue. Consult your primary care provider if you have a related medical condition or experience symptoms.
BENEFITS AND RISKS OF USING SUPPLEMENTS
Since vitamin D is not naturally found in most foods, supplements are a convenient way to work it into your diet when you are unable to get regular sun exposure.
Vegans and vegetarians commonly use supplements in their diet to fill in the gaps left by meat and other animal products. However, many vitamin D supplements are sourced from animals or use animal by-products. Gummy supplements often use gelatin sourced from pigs, and so are not considered vegetarian or halal. Be sure to carefully read the labels, as vegetarian-safe products will normally have a specific indicator.
Supplements are not recommended for people who are pregnant, nursing, or taking certain medications, as vitamin D supplements can sometimes interfere with their efficacy. Taking too high a dose of vitamin D can increase the risk of blood vessel calcification and can cause adverse effects if misused. Those without a significant vitamin D insufficiency or deficiency are not recommended to take supplements as its benefits outside of providing vitamin D are still inconclusive and pose a potential risk to cardiovascular health. Always consult your primary care provider before adding supplements to your diet.
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