In the world of supplements, vitamin D has been hogging the spotlight for many years now. That’s because it’s a common deficiency. When you consider that it’s called the sunshine vitamin, it’s not very surprising — considering the number of people who spend most of the daylight hours indoors.
An article in the New York Times from three years ago describes the sometimes heated back and forth among experts regarding the optimal daily allowance. It says that the supplement “promises to be the most talked-about and written-about supplement of the decade.” But the widespread deficiency has been around for far longer.
According to an article in MedicineNet.com, “by the turn of the 20th century, 90% of the children living in New York, Boston and Leyden in the Netherlands were afflicted with rickets, a bone-deforming disease.” In 1889, the article continued, it was discovered that sunbathing could help prevent rickets.
Vitamin D has two forms: D2 and D3. You can get your D2 from fortified foods, plant foods and supplements. You can get D3 from fortified foods (milk, cheese), animal foods (some fish, fish liver oils and egg yolks) and from the sun. The science of the human body is pretty neat — you produce vitamin D all on your own when you expose your skin to sunlight.
It’s actually quite easy to become deficient. Vitamin D occurs naturally in few foods. And even if you get “enough” sun, several factors — such as obesity, certain medical conditions and some medications — can affect absorption.
Even skin color comes into effect when it comes to producing the amount of vitamin D your body needs for all those organs to carry on as needed. Melanin has been found to reduce your skin’s ability to produce vitamin D when exposed to sunshine, although some studies have suggested that the vitamin deficiency has been over-diagnosed in black patients.
And we may as well address the white elephant in the room. What about skin cancer? Because if you’re slathering on that SPF a millionty — some experts claim SPF 30 is enough to reduce your skin’s ability to produce the supplement from sun exposure — then you can be out in the sunshiniest of days for an hour, and you might not necessarily produce as much vitamin D as someone with fair skin who is out in the sun for about 15 minutes. Talk about picking from the lesser of two evils.
You get what you can from foods in which it occurs naturally and make up the diference by going out in the sun — which means that if you’re a vegan, vegetarian or someone who can’t tolerate dairy, you’re pretty much stuck having to talk to your doctor to see which is the best supplement for you to take daily. Ditto for people who — for whatever reason — are indoors during the day and find it difficult, or impossible, to go outside.
More research is needed to make a definitive link between vitamin D and whether it can help prevent or treat certain medical conditions, such as Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. What it definitely does do, however, is help the body use calcium and keep those bones strong and healthy.
You don’t want to assume you are deficient, even if you shun the evil daystar and don’t consume the foods in which vitamin D occurs naturally on a regular basis. Neither do you want to assume you are a lean, mean, vitamin D-producing machine because you go out in the sun every day sans sunblock for at least 30 minutes and drink milk with your farmed salmon every other night.
Because many people either don’t have symptoms that suggest vitamin D deficiency or don’t realize that the ache in their bones might be signaling a deficiency, the best thing to do is to ask your doctor to check for it when you get your blood drawn at your yearly physical. Your doctor will determine the best course of action depending on your test results.