AS I GAZE at the sun streaming through my office window, I can’t help but smile.
It’s amazing how sunlight lifts my mood. Just the sight of sunshine seems to warm and energize me. I want to laugh, to play, to exercise. I move faster, step lighter and want to do more. I am more optimistic and productive with my time.
But as we’ve been hearing more and more each year, the sun’s health benefit is not limited to our mood. It seems that by stimulating our body’s production of vitamin D, the sun’s rays provide us with the best natural source of what some in the medical community consider one of the most important nutrients.
In the past few weeks alone, researchers have published findings explaining how vitamin D may help to combat Multiple Sclerosis (MS), that it may reduce the risk of breast cancer, and that low levels may contribute to liver disease. Previous research has linked low levels of vitamin D to heart disease, diabetes, several forms of cancer, arthritis and more. For years it has been known to affect bone health and prevent the bone disease rickets.
It seems pretty clear that we need our vitamin D. However, as more information rolls in about the importance of the stuff, the medical community is finding a vitamin D deficiency surprisingly prevalent -– even in sunny places like Southern California. Some speculate that this deficiency may be a result of our increased efforts to thwart skin cancer by covering up and applying sun block. Others speculate that it is related to declining consumption of milk, which is fortified in the U.S. with vitamin D to prevent rickets.
Regardless, many people are not getting enough vitamin D. According to the Mayo Clinic, those most at risk include the elderly, obese individuals, exclusively breast-fed babies, and those who have limited sun exposure. Those who have fat malabsorption syndromes like cystic fibrosis or irritable bowel disease are also at risk.
The problem is especially critical here in the Pacific Northwest, where researchers say the angle of the sun’s rays is insufficient from October to March to provide the vitamin D we need.
And while the sun is streaming through the window today, we all know sunny season is coming to an end. With October quickly approaching, it’s a good time to think about how we can make sure everyone in our families are getting enough vitamin D.
BECAUSE YOU cannot rely on the sun alone (or, during the winter, hardly at all), you will need to make sure you are getting vitamin D elsewhere. The problem is, vitamin D is not found naturally in many foods. According to the National Institute of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements, vitamin D can be found in cod liver oil and fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. Small amounts of D can also be found in beef liver, cheese, egg yolks and mushrooms. In addition, some foods are fortified with vitamin D, including almost all milk sold in the U.S. and some cereals, orange juice, yogurt, margarine and soy products. Be sure to check the labels.
However, dietary sources only provide some of our recommended daily intake. For example, the new Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) set by the Food and Nutrition Board in 2010 for people ages one through 70 is 600 International Units (IU) per day. But a cup of fortified milk only provides around 120 IUs and salmon, mackerel and tuna fish – three of the best natural sources – only provide 447, 388 and 154 IUs respectively. To compare, 15-20 minutes of full-body, mid-day, mid-summer sun exposure can provide as much as 10,000 or more IUs, according to an article published in 2007 by researcher Michael Hollick.
With little or no help from the sun six months of the year, and only limited help from food sources, many people might want to take a supplement. This may simply mean taking multi-vitamins, which typically provide anywhere from 50-1000 IU.
“Vitamin D is an imperative from the cradle to the grave, especially in Seattle,” said Dr. Don Shifrin, a pediatrician with Pediatric Associates’ Bellevue office. “Most people should be taking a supplement or multivitamin to get the vitamin D they need, unless they are drinking copious amounts of fortified milk. But you’d need to drink about a quart of milk a day to get up to the minimum recommended levels so for most people, they’ll want to take a supplement.”
Because it’s sometimes hard to get kids to take their vitamins, especially in the morning or when they’re getting themselves ready for bed, Dr. Shifrin suggests distributing vitamins at dinnertime. He also warns that while you need your vitamin D, it does not replace the need for calcium.
“Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, which is needed for bone health,” he said. “But you must make sure you’re getting calcium for your body to absorb.”
While the Food and Nutrition Board recommends 400 IU for infants in their first year, 600 IU for those 1-70, and 800 IU for adults over 71, there is great debate among the medical community about how much vitamin D is really enough. Canadian recommendations, for example, are much higher than these. Many vitamin D researchers seem to agree that U.S. recommendations are too low.
The best way to determine the right course for you and your family is, of course, to ask your healthcare provider. There is a simple blood test they can do to determine your current vitamin D levels. From there, he or she can recommend a supplement if necessary.
The important thing is to take charge of your vitamin D. Our relationship with our dear sunny friend is about to become more distant. And then, through diet and/or supplements, it is up to us to get the D we need.