As a contributor to everything from immunity, bone health and brain function, it’s clear that vitamin D, a.k.a. the “sunshine vitamin” is a vital nutrient for optimal body function. We consume this fat-soluble vitamin from a few sources, including foods that are either naturally rich in vitamin D or fortified, or supplements. It’s also produced in the body when skin is exposed to an adequate amount of ultraviolet (UV) sunlight. While it may seem easy enough to meet the minimum daily requirement of vitamin D, the truth is that 40% of us fall short. Why? Sources are few and far between. Here, we take a deeper dive into three reasons why vitamin D is important. We give you tips to help you amp up everyday meals and snacks to meet your needs.
1. Vitamin D supports immunity
Vitamin D keeps your immune system primed and ready for when an illness strikes. When faced with an infection, it tempers the body’s inflammatory response and enhances the production of virus- and bacteria-fighting proteins for protection.
Recently vitamin D is linked to lowering one’s risk of COVID-19, shortening recovery time and improving overall outcomes. According to one small study by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, out of 216 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, 80% had low vitamin D levels. Further, it found that those with a positive diagnosis for COVID-19 and low vitamin D levels, had an increased number of the inflammatory markers that have been linked to poor outcomes.
Meanwhile, research remains inconclusive regarding the exact connection between this vitamin and the relatively new COVID-19. However, experts don’t discount the value of supplementing vitamin D. This is particularly helpful in climates where regular exposure to sunlight isn’t realistic due to the season or for those at a higher risk for deficiency. So, the recommendation is to add more dietary sources to the plate for an added layer of protection. See Dr. Li’s Favorite Immune Boosting Foods for other foods that will help bolster your immunity.
2. Your Bones will thank you
Maintaining healthy bones and strong muscles is a big job and vitamin D plays a key role in the process. In addition to promoting calcium absorption, it s also involved in the growth and development of muscle fibers. It also important in bone mineralization and remodeling. These are processes that strengthen bone tissue and replace/repair it when needed. Without enough vitamin D, the bones may become thin and fragile. This increases the risk for breaks and fractures.
Most people don’t have a hard time getting enough calcium from foods like dairy products, dairy leafy green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, fortified milk alternatives, juices and cereals and fish with bones. However the absence of enough vitamin D means that it can’t properly be absorbed and utilized in the body.
3. Better Brain Health
Mental sharpness, memory and overall brain development and function are greatly influenced by vitamin D. When the body is deficient, brain function may be impaired and present as difficulty concentrating or “brain fog”, memory loss and even increased risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia. The aging population is particularly prone for such conditions as the body’s ability to synthesize this vitamin from the sun decreases with age. This population is simply more likely to fall short with their dietary intake as well. While links to vitamin D deficiency and depression have been investigated, it’s difficult to separate out the many other factors that contribute to depression in order to make a strong case.
Building a vitamin-D rich basket
Being intentional about including naturally occurring and fortified sources of the sunshine vitamin in your diet is truly essential in order to meet your needs of 15 micrograms (mcg) per day for individuals age 1 through 70. People over 70 need 20 micrograms a day. Here are foods to regularly include on your grocery list, and how much they contribute per serving, to help you reach this goal:
Salmon, pink, cooked, 3 ounces = 11.1 mcg
Tuna fish, canned in oil, drained, 3 ounces = 5.2 mcg
Sardines, canned in oil, drained, 3 ounces = 4.1 mcg
Egg, whole, cooked, 1 large = 1.1 mcg
Milk nonfat, fortified, 8 ounces = 2.9 mcg
Ready-to-eat cereals, fortified, 1 cup = 1.6 mcg
Soy milk, unsweetened + vitamins A + D, 1 cup =2.9 mcg
100% orange juice with calcium + vitamin D, 1 cup = 1.49 mcg
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
If these foods aren’t part of your typical eating pattern already, don’t despair. You may need to supplement with a multivitamin or tablet. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient. That means it’s best absorbed when taken with a meal, snack or drink that contains some fat. It’s also important to note that while one may think ‘more is better,’ this is certainly not the case. Consuming above the daily recommendations may be more detrimental to health than it is beneficial. Older woman with high levels in one study experienced more falls and fractures. In rare cases, too much could toxic.
If you’re in need of meal planning tips and ideas to get more of this important vitamin in your diet, consult with an expert registered dietitian nutritionist for a custom eating plan.
Beth Stark, RDN, LDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition consultant based in PA. Connect with her on Instagram, @BethStark.RDN.