Vitamin D is sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin” because it’s produced in your skin naturally when exposed to sunlight. The main job of vitamin D is to keep the right amount of calcium and phosphorus in your blood, which work together to make your bones healthy and strong. If you don’t have vitamin D in your body, only a small amount of the calcium you consume from your diet can be absorbed, and only a little more than half of phosphorus is absorbed –and without enough calcium and phosphorus, your bones can become brittle and break easily, in addition to other health problems you may not expect.

Until recently, experts believed that the main role of vitamin D was to keep our bones healthy and prevent them from breaking. But new research has shown vitamin D goes beyond its well-established role in bone health and also helps reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and more.

Despite it being an all-star nutrient for our health, an estimated 40-75% of adults in the United States are not getting enough of it. Although vitamin D can be stored in your body fat until it is needed, the problem is that it’s not so easy to get enough vitamin D into your body. Many factors can affect the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D, including season, time of day, geographic location, air pollution, cloud cover, sunscreen, color, and age. Because of these factors (some of which are impossible for us to control), it’s recommended we get vitamin D from food and supplements, in addition to catching 10-20 minutes of sun rays a day. But, with dermatologists recommending we all reduce as much direct sun exposure as possible to prevent wrinkles, aging, and skin cancer, it can be tricky to get the high amount of this essential vitamin our body needs to protect itself.

So, what to do? If you’re feeling like you might not be getting enough of the good stuff, there are plenty of easy ways to pack more vitamin D into your daily routine. Read on to discover three surprising benefits of vitamin D to your overall health, and easy ways to boost your intake.

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1. Vitamin D fights disease.

In addition to its primary benefits mentioned above, research suggests that vitamin D may also play a role in helping to:

  • Reduce the risk of cancer, especially colon cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer
  • Reduce the risk of diabetes, especially in young people and in those living in high altitude
  • Protect against heart disease, including high blood pressure and heart failure
  • Reduce your risk for multiple sclerosis
  • Help to reduce your likelihood of developing the flu.

2. Vitamin D improves your mood and reduces depression.

Research has shown vitamin D to play an important role in regulating mood and warding off depression. In one study, scientists found that people with depression who received vitamin D supplements noticed an improvement in their symptoms and felt their moods were more balanced and happier. In another study of people with fibromyalgia, researchers found vitamin D deficiency was more common in those who were also experiencing anxiety and depression.

3. Vitamin D boosts weight loss.

Consider adding vitamin D supplements to your diet if you’re trying to lose weight or prevent heart disease. In one study, people taking a daily calcium and vitamin D supplement were able to lose more weight than subjects taking a placebo supplement. The scientists said the extra calcium and vitamin D had an appetite-suppressing effect. In another study, overweight people who took a daily vitamin D supplement improved their heart disease risk markers in as little as one year.

How much vitamin D do you need?

The best way to know if you are getting enough vitamin D is to have a specific blood test. Otherwise, you may not know that you’re not getting enough vitamin D until you start having symptoms associated with vitamin D deficiency. But the vitamin D test is very expensive, so it’s not routinely done in a checkup. Doctors recommend all children and adults need about 800 to 1000 units (marked as “800 IU”) of vitamin D every day. And people who are older than 65 are said to need even more than 1000 IU, because they usually don’t spend much time in the sun and their bodies don’t absorb vitamins as efficiently.

What are the best sources of vitamin D?

Sunlight. 

This is truly the only time we’ll ever recommend going without sun protection while soaking up some rays, because unfortunately the same chemicals that protect our skin from becoming burned block the UV-B light that our bodies process as vitamin D. That said—studies show that spending as little as 15 minutes outside without sun protection should get most of us the vitamin D we need. Though if your skin is darker, you may need to spend a little bit more time sunbathing before slapping on some sunscreen to get the full effect.

Eating vitamin D rich foods.  

If even thinking about spending 15 minutes in the sun without SPF makes you feel immediately burned to a crisp, then turning to other sources to get your daily dose of vitamin D may be a better idea. The good news is that plenty of healthy, easy to cook foods come complete with hefty doses of vitamin D.

In addition to packing in brain-boosting omega-3’s, fish (especially salmon), egg yolks, and mushrooms all are great sources of vitamin D. Incorporating a few meals with these ingredients—like salmon roll sushi bowls or wild mushrooms, sautéed kale, and eggs—into your weekly meal plan should give your body a serious boost. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, look for foods that are fortified with the vitamin. Grabbing a glass of fortified orange juice or a bowl of whole-grain cereal are great ways to incorporate the nutrient if you are skipping fish and dairy.

Taking supplements. 

For many of us, adding a vitamin D supplement into our daily routines is likely going to be the easiest way to ensure you’re getting enough of the nutrient. The key here is choosing the right one for your body.

Typically, vitamin D supplements contain either D2, which is extracted from plants, or D3, which is extracted from animals, so be sure to check the label of whatever you are buying if you are vegan or vegetarian. While you’re there, you are also going to want to look for seals of quality and purity from third-parties like USP. Since the U.S. has pretty loose rules on regulating vitamins, seals like these ensure you’re getting something that won’t do your body more harm than good. Once you’ve found a few high-quality supplements, play around with which type makes you feel the best. Here’s the best vitamin D supplements you can easily buy online to boost your daily intake, according to a dietitian.

  • Nordic Naturals Vitamin D3“Provides 1,000 IU in a small capsule form.”
  • NatureWise Vitamin D3 : “A great option for anyone looking to improve their Vitamin D levels without taking a supplement daily.”
  • Solgar Vitamin D3 : “For those who do not have a Vitamin D deficiency but want to supplement a wholesome diet and lifestyle that includes the outdoors.”

It’s also important to note that it is definitely a good idea to consult your doctor if you feel like you may not be getting enough vitamin D. This rings especially true if you are thinking about adding a vitamin D supplement into your daily routine, as your doctor can help you determine the correct dosage of vitamins to be taking. If taking multiple supplements, it is always important to add up the amounts of a single nutrient across products, take an inventory of your diet and check with a health professional to make sure you not consuming too much of one thing.

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