Winter brings many of our favorite holidays but often lacks some much needed sunlight. This could cause low levels of Vitamin D, also called the “sunshine vitamin.” Thankfully, even when sunlight is not available, we can get a sufficient amount of vitamin D through our diets and by taking supplements.
It only takes about five to 30 minutes of sun exposure, twice weekly, for ultraviolet B radiation to convert a steroid in our skin into an adequate amount of Vitamin D. However, production can be inhibited by high melatonin levels, sunscreen and cloud cover. If you have limited sun exposure or follow good sunscreen practices, you might consider consuming more vitamin D-rich foods or taking supplements.
Getting enough Vitamin D is very important because low levels are most commonly associated with bone softening in adults and children, which could cause bone pain or muscle weakness. Certain medications, such as steroids, can degrade vitamin D. Patients with malabsorption bowel diseases might also be at risk for low levels.
Researchers are still working to determine all the benefits of Vitamin D such as strengthening your immune system, improving muscle, heart, respiratory, and brain function, and anti-cancer effects.
If you would like to increase your Vitamin D levels through the foods you eat, consider the addition of fatty fish, such as salmon, and egg yolks to your diet. Many foods are fortified with vitamin D — milk, orange juice and cereal — so you can check the food labels to determine if you’re receiving enough Vitamin D. Even infant formulas are standardized with 40-100 international units (IU) of Vitamin D per 100 kcals.
Vitamin D supplements are available in two forms: D2, also called ergocalciferol, and D3, also called cholecalciferol. They are different chemical structures, but both have been proven to raise blood levels. Most pharmacies have several over-the-counter options for daily use, or your prescriber can write a prescription for a once weekly capsule.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends patients younger than 50 years of age take 400 to 800 IU per day. Those older than 50 years should take 800 to 1000 IU daily. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies that are completely or partially breastfed should be supplemented with 400 IU once daily.
High levels of Vitamin D also can be damaging, so you should always consult your pharmacist for help with product selection, and your healthcare provider should monitor your supplement use.
Rachael Willoughby is a pharmacist with Baptist Health Richmond Professional Pharmacy.