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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Optimize your health with vitamin D

Apr 28, 2023 01:03PM ● By Nancy J. Schaaf, RN

A few months ago, I had bloodwork done in preparation for a wellness visit with my doctor. The results showed a low level of vitamin D. 

I know what you’re thinking: “How can you be lacking vitamin D when you live in Colorado with its 300-plus days of sunshine?”

I’m stumped as well. But regardless, my doctor advised me to take a supplement.

A work horse for your health

How is vitamin D essential for our health and why should we be concerned about our levels? Vitamin D is a workhorse nutrient. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), its functions are strengthening bones, absorbing calcium and bolstering immunity.

Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because our bodies can produce it when exposed to ultraviolet light. Most people get vitamin D through sun exposure, according to the NIH. But just as vitamin D can benefit our health, a lack of it may lead to health issues. 

“We see a lot of associations between vitamin D deficiency and poor health outcomes,” said Mary Byrn, RN, an associate professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

Vitamin D strengthens our immune system and the body’s ability to ward off infection. Since there are vitamin D receptors on immune cells, a deficiency increases our susceptibility to infection.

Vitamin D also plays a role in maintaining skeletal health. Low vitamin D levels lead to low bone calcium, increasing the risk of fractures and osteoporosis. This condition occurs when new bone doesn’t generate at the same pace as the loss of old bone, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

Supplement naturally

Many people generate vitamin D from sunshine, which isn’t as prevalent during the winter. This increases the risk of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

“There is research evidence that shows a relationship between mood and vitamin D levels, where deficient vitamin D levels are related to depression,” said Byrn.

Exposing ourselves to the sun safely is an easy and natural way to improve our health and reduce our risk of multiple diseases. Professionals suggest getting about 5 to 30 minutes of daily sun exposure. However, too much sun can increase our chances of skin cancer and wrinkles. Wear sunscreen with at least SPF 15 and protective clothing, according to the NIH. 

Since not every inch of our body will be covered, it’s likely we’ll still synthesize enough vitamin D. However, factors like the season, time of day, cloud cover, skin pigment and sunscreen affect how much vitamin D a person can synthesize naturally. 

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Recommended amounts

We can also attain vitamin D through the foods we eat. Good sources include salmon, eggs, cheddar cheese, and fortified foods such as milk, cereal and orange juice. Yet very few foods have enough vitamin D to reach recommended daily intakes. 

Men and women relying on sourcing vitamin D through diet and sunlight alone rarely get more than 288 IU a day on average. That’s why many people take supplements. 

The NIH recommends that adults ages 19 to 70 take in 15 mcg (600 IU), and adults 71 and older take 20 mcg (800 IU). The maximum daily limit is 4,000 IU for ages 9 and older. 

Older women and men will likely require more vitamin D because they don’t absorb it as well as they used to. Their bodies also create less of it. A review published in Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America noted that aging reduces vitamin D production in the skin. Treating elderly people with 800 IU of vitamin D supplements can increase levels to an adequate range and reduce fractures.

Experts advise that everyone check their vitamin D levels at their annual physical. See your doctor before taking any supplements and follow their recommendations about how much is right for you.