You’ve probably heard people call vitamin D the “sunshine vitamin”—one that the body creates via UV ray exposure and that, 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 (though that’s very important). It actually plays a key role in bone health, the strength of your teeth, and the power of your immune system. Keep reading to learn how.
How does vitamin D work?
“Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is both a nutrient and acts as a hormone,” explains Melissa Prest, D.C.N., R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Its main function is to help the body absorb and regulate calcium and phosphorous, ensuring they’re available to strengthen bones and teeth, she adds. It also aids in the absorption of magnesium, which supports muscle and nerve function as well as energy levels.
Vitamin D boosts the immune system, too, by inhibiting the production of inflammatory cytokines, a molecule that signals inflammation, explains Heather Mangieri, R.D.N., a sports and wellness dietitian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
There are two main types of vitamin D—vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Vitamin D2 naturally occurs in some plants, whereas vitamin D3 is found in some animals and produced by human skin via sunlight exposure. Mangieri explains that D3 is considered the more potent form of the vitamin because it “has been shown to raise levels higher and for a longer period of time than D2.”
Vitamin D benefits
Ongoing research continues to uncover how crucial vitamin D is to overall health. “It’s 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 being said, here are some of the ways proper vitamin D levels can improve your overall well-being:
A vitamin D deficiency, especially in older people, increases the risk of fractures and fosters overall weak and soft bones, Prest explains. “This condition is called osteomalacia and can cause bone deformities, pain, seizures from low blood calcium levels, muscle spasms, and dental abnormalities,” she adds. Low vitamin D also increases 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 high vitamin D levels to be linked with improved 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 like pneumonia and even COVID-19.
Better Heart Health
Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with heart disease and cardiovascular disease-related mortality. However, further research is needed to determine if supplementing vitamin D can improve those conditions.
Low vitamin D has been scientifically linked to depression, and vitamin D supplements are sometimes used to treat it. However, more research is necessary to confirm that supplements can reverse symptoms of clinical depression.
Vitamin D sources
Although vitamin D is found in some foods, they’re 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 in.
“It is difficult to get enough vitamin D from foods alone,” Prest admits. “We need to consume vitamin D and get some exposure to the sun to make sure we have an adequate supply available for our body to use.” With that being said, soaking up the sun isn’t always easy.
“Cloud coverage, season, distance from the equator, pollution, skin pigmentation, age, and wearing sunblock can all impact how much vitamin D your body is able to produce,” explains Mangieri. Plus, there’s the danger of skin cancer.
Mangieri adds that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s recommended daily vitamin D intake for children and adults is 600 international units (IU). “While I fully encourage a food-first approach,” she says, “when it comes to Vitamin D, a dietary supplement is often needed.”
Vitamin D deficiency
It’s only necessary to supplement with vitamin D if you know for sure your levels are low, which Mangieri says is difficult to confirm without a blood test performed by a doctor. “Most symptoms are vague and can be easily overlooked,” she adds. “As a sports dietitian, I get concerned about a vitamin D deficiency when I see an athlete complaining of fatigue, bone pain, muscle aches, or presenting with multiple bone fractures or injuries.”
Other symptoms of a deficiency include muscle weakness and mood changes, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Dietary supplements are products intended to supplement the diet. They are not medicines and are not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure diseases.
Vitamin D supplements
You can get both vitamin D2 and vitamin D3 in supplement form. Vitamin D2 supplements are made by exposing the ergosterol in yeast to UV radiation, explains Prest, and vitamin D3 supplements come from the exposure of 7-dehydrocholesterol—obtained from lanolin in the wool of sheep—to UV radiation. “There is also an animal-free version of vitamin D3made from lichen,” she adds, which comes from algae.
“For people following a vegan diet or avoiding certain animal products, they can contact the dietary supplement manufacturer to ask about the product’s ingredients, and how it was sourced and processed,” says Prest. It’s also important to note that vitamins and supplements aren’t FDA-regulated. If you need one, Prest recommends looking for a standalone vitamin D supplement versus a multi-vitamin to ensure you get 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,” Mangieri adds. “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 conversation with your doctor or a registered dietitian before starting the supplement. A professional, she says, can help determine how much you should take.
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