You’ve probably heard people call vitamin D the “sunshine vitamin,” one that your body creates through UV exposure and, when you get enough of it, can perk up your mood. But the benefits of vitamin D, more specifically, vitamin D3, go far beyond putting a smile on your face (although that’s very important). In fact, it plays a key role in bone health, the strength of your teeth, and the power of your immune system. Read on to learn how.
How does vitamin D work?
“Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is both a nutrient and a hormone,” he explains. Melissa Perst, DCN, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Its main function is to help the body absorb and regulate calcium and phosphorus, ensuring that they are available to strengthen bones and teeth, it adds. It also aids in the absorption of magnesium, which supports muscle and nerve function, as well as energy levels.
Vitamin D also boosts the immune system by inhibiting the production of inflammatory cytokines, a molecule that signals inflammation, explains Heather Mangieri, RDN, a sports and wellness dietitian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
exist two main types of vitamin D—vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Vitamin D2 is found naturally in some plants, while vitamin D3 is found in some animals and is produced by human skin through exposure to sunlight. Mangieri explains that D3 is considered the most potent form of the vitamin because “it has been shown to raise levels higher and for a longer period of time than D2.”
Benefits of vitamin D
Ongoing research continues to uncover just how crucial vitamin D is to overall health. “It is involved in many metabolic pathways, and scientists continue to investigate its role in heart disease, diabetes, depression, and multiple sclerosis, among others,” adds Mangieri. With that said, here are some of the ways adequate vitamin D levels can improve your overall well-being:
A deficiency of vitamin D, especially in older people, increases the risk of fractures and promotes weak and soft bones in general, explains Perst. “This condition is called osteomalacia and can cause bone deformities, pain, seizures from low blood calcium levels, muscle spasms, and dental abnormalities,” he adds. Low vitamin D also increases the risk of developing osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease.
Although more research on the relationship between vitamin D and muscle mass is warranted, some studies have found that high levels of vitamin D are linked to greater strength.
Due to its ability to regulate the production of inflammatory cytokines, vitamin D has been found to help the immune system overcome bacterial and viral infections such as pneumonia and even COVID-19.
better heart health
Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with heart disease and cardiovascular disease-related mortality. However, more research is needed to determine whether vitamin D supplementation can improve these conditions.
Low vitamin D levels have been scientifically linked to depression, and vitamin D supplements are sometimes used to treat it. However, more research is needed to confirm that supplements can reverse symptoms of clinical depression.
sources of vitamin D
Although vitamin D is found in some foods, they are not foods that most people regularly put on their plates. “Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and trout, as well as fish liver oils, are among the best natural sources,” says Mangieri. “Cheese, egg yolks, beef liver and mushrooms also have small amounts.” Other foods like milk, yogurt, cereal, and orange juice are often fortified with vitamin D, meaning the nutrient is added.
“It’s hard to get enough vitamin D from food alone,” admits Perst. “We need to consume vitamin D and get some sun exposure to make sure we have an adequate supply available for our bodies to use.” That said, sunbathing isn’t always easy.
“Cloud cover, season, distance from the equator, pollution, skin pigmentation, age, and sunscreen use can affect how much vitamin D your body can make,” explains Mangieri. In addition, there is the danger of skin cancer.
Mangieri adds that the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recommended daily intake of vitamin D for children and adults is 600 international units (IU). “While I highly recommend a food-first approach,” he says, “when it comes to vitamin D, a dietary supplement is often needed.”
vitamin D deficiency
You only need to supplement with vitamin D if you’re sure your levels are low, which Mangieri says is difficult to confirm without a blood test by a doctor. “Most symptoms are vague and can be easily missed,” he adds. “As a sports dietitian, I am concerned about vitamin D deficiency when I see an athlete complaining of fatigue, bone pain, muscle aches, or multiple bone fractures or injuries.”
Other symptoms of a deficiency include muscle weakness and mood swings, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Dietary supplements are products intended to supplement the diet. They are not drugs and are not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent or cure disease.
vitamin D supplements
You can get vitamin D2 and vitamin D3 in supplement form. Vitamin D2 supplements are made by exposing yeast ergosterol to ultraviolet radiation, Perst explains, and vitamin D3 supplements come from exposing 7-dehydrocholesterol, obtained from lanolin in sheep’s wool, to radiation ultraviolet. “There is also an animal-free version of vitamin D3made from lichens,” he adds, which comes from algae.
“For people who follow a vegan diet or who avoid certain animal products, they can contact the manufacturer of the dietary supplement to ask about the product’s ingredients and how it was sourced and processed,” Perst says. It is also important to note that vitamins and supplements are not regulated by the FDA. If you need one, Perst recommends looking for a stand-alone vitamin D supplement instead of a multivitamin to ensure you’re getting enough of the nutrient.
“Look for brands with the USP verification mark on the label or that have been third-party tested through programs like NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Choice,” adds Mangieri. “By choosing supplements with these labels, you know that what is on the label is actually present in the product in the amounts stated.”
Most importantly, Mangieri suggests having a discussion with your doctor or a registered dietitian before you start taking the supplement. A professional, she says, can help determine how much to take.
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