The more we learn about Vitamin D’s benefits, the clearer it becomes that this vitamin is a powerhouse. It wards off depression, improves bone, and heart health and may even protect us from certain cancers and diabetes.
However, according to past research, it’s a vitamin that almost half of adults don’t get enough of.
What Causes Vitamin D Deficiency?
Vitamin D deficiency is a side effect of our busy, indoor lifestyles and diligent use of sunscreen (which blocks ultraviolet rays and prevents skin from triggering Vitamin D synthesis). Certain medical conditions can also cause Vitamin D deficiency, such as kidney, liver, stomach and intestinal diseases, as well as gastric bypass surgery.
Age can also cause the skin to make less Vitamin D. Older adults are particularly susceptible to vitamin D insufficiency, partly because we don’t synthesize vitamin D as efficiently as younger people do.
Vitamin D deficiency can contribute to a range of diseases:
The most common disorder associated with Vitamin D deficiency is osteoporosis: the development of brittle, porous bones that break easily.
This is an especially common condition for seniors and post-menopausal women. In fact, researchers found that post-menopausal women who consumed adequate amounts of Vitamin D had lower risks of osteoporotic hip fractures.
According to the Journal of Pharmacology, “Many studies have suggested a link between low Vitamin D levels and an increased risk of cancer, with the strongest evidence for colorectal cancer.” Studies also indicate a correlation between higher Vitamin D intake and lower risks for breast cancer.
Heart Disease and Hypertension
Several studies show that Vitamin D acts as a protective factor against inflammatory processes that can cause heart disease. In fact, one study indicated that patients with low Vitamin D levels had a 60% higher risk for heart disease, while another study indicated they were three times more likely to develop hypertension.
Researchers haven’t yet made a definitive cause-and-effect connection between low Vitamin D levels and cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Studies do indicate, however, that older adults who lack Vitamin D may have slower cognitive abilities than those who have adequate Vitamin D levels, and that they may be at substantially higher risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
According to some studies, Vitamin D receptors have been found in areas of the brain that are linked to depression and other mental health problems. However, it doesn’t appear that taking Vitamin D supplements is enough to relieve depression symptoms.
How Much Vitamin D Do You Actually Need?
According to the Food and Nutrition Board at the National Institutes of Health, men and women ages 60-70 should get 600 IUs (15 mcg) of Vitamin D per day, while those over 70 should take in 800 IUs (20 mcg).
Also, you may be wondering if you should get Vitamin D from sunshine, food or supplements. That depends on many factors, including your diet, climate, Vitamin D blood levels, the amount of time you spend outdoors and your risks for developing skin cancer.
Researchers say that as little as 5 to 30 minutes, twice a week, of mid-day sun exposure on bare skin without sunscreen is probably enough to activate Vitamin D synthesis.
This limited amount of time in the sun is likely safe for most people (whose skin isn’t particularly sensitive to sunburn or at risk for skin cancer) and may even provide additional physical and mental health benefits from exposure to fresh air, natural light and the possibility of increased exercise. In fact, a study recently published in the Journal of Internal Medicine says that sun exposure might be linked to longer life expectancy in women.
Dermatologists, however, don’t think that sunbathing to get your “D” is a great idea. “In order to maximize Vitamin D synthesis, you have to be out in the sun during its maximum peak of UV exposure,” explains Joyce Davis, MD, a NY-based dermatologist.
“Those are the same hours we usually tell people to use sun block. Dermatologists prefer that patients supplement Vitamin D with dietary sources because sitting in the sun without sun block could lead to an increase in melanoma (a potentially fatal form of skin cancer).”
The best bet? Ask your doctor if you’re getting enough Vitamin D, if it’s safe for you to be in the sun and whether you need to take supplements. Maybe you’ll get a prescription to go outside and play.