The Importance of Vitamin D (and P.S… You Probably Don’t Have Enough!)

Vitamin D is an amazing thing. It’s one of the most important nutrients for the body, affecting every single cell we have! Most of us know that it’s main job is to work with vitamin K to facilitate calcium absorption and strengthen bone, but vitamin D is not just for bones! There are so many other ways in which vitamin D is used by the body and ideal levels of vitamin D allow the body to function optimally. Some of the many roles vitamin D plays in the body include:

  • boosts mood
  • strengthens the immune system
  • helps to reduce inflammation
  • disease prevention (heart disease, cancer)
  • hormone balance
  • autoimmune disease prevention (wish I’d known this tidbit earlier!)
  • protection against high blood pressure

Given its importance to so many systems in the body, it might surprise you to know that over 70% of the population is deficient in vitamin D. It’s a fat soluble vitamin, so we’re able to store it (unlike vitamin C and Bs), but it is not as easily built up as other vitamins – one reason it’s so often deficient. Breastfed infants, people in northern regions (like where I am in Nova Scotia!), folks who spend most of their time inside, those with darker skin, and people who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and/or Ulcerative Colitis) are examples of those who are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency. Some signs of insufficient blood levels of vitamin D include:

  • low energy levels
  • depression
  • hair loss
  • increased incidents of sickness
  • insomnia
  • autoimmune disease
  • high blood pressure 
  • skin conditions (psoriasis, eczema)
  • Multiple Sclerosis

Many of us have one or more of these symptoms, but sadly, few of us realize that low levels of vitamin D could be contributing to them and/or that optimal levels can help alleviate many of them. As someone with an autoimmune disease, I find it so frustrating that this information isn’t provided as a standard of our health care system.

Another reason to love a sunny day!

Our best source of vitamin D comes from the sun. In order to get enough vitamin D from the sun, we need to spend at least twenty minutes, at 1 pm daily, in a t-shirt and shorts, sunscreen-free. (And just FYI, after you’re in the sun, it takes 24-48 hours for the vitamin D on the skin to absorb into the blood stream – so go easy on the soap in the shower for a day or two!) Few of us spend much time in the sun without the protection of sunscreen, but unfortunately, sunscreen blocks vitamin D from getting into our skin, making it almost impossible to get enough of this key nutrient that way. Besides the effects of sunscreen, geographical location (most of Canada and the US) and also daily habits make it unrealistic for most people to be that specific about their sun exposure and/or rely solely on the sun to build vitamin D levels. That makes it super important that we find other ways to build up our vitamin D stores.  

So how else can we increase vitamin D levels in the body?

In addition to the sun, we are able to get some vitamin D from foods such as fatty fish like wild salmon, tuna and sardines, free range egg yolks, oysters, mushrooms, and shrimp. However, it’s one of few nutrients that is not easily built up with food, so in this case, relying on food is not a good option – and you won’t hear me say that very often! Supplementing vitamin D is an excellent way to increase stores in the body, provided you use the right form. The first step is to get your blood levels checked, either through your doctor or a private testing company (Vitamin D Council or Grass Roots Health). Most functional medicine practitioners believe the “normal” range to be between 75-125 ng/mL, but for disease prevention, we should be aiming for optimal levels of over 125ng/mL. Once you know your baseline blood level of vitamin D, you and your health practitioner can determine the best vitamin D dosage for you. When choosing a supplement, look for D3 (cholecalciferol), as it’s the most active form for the body and therefore, most well-used (this is the one we take). It takes approximately three months for supplements to show up in the blood, so it’s a good idea to get your blood levels checked after three months of supplementing and then every three to six months until you reach the optimal range.

Another important factor to achieve and maintain optimal vitamin D levels in the body is the health of your liver and kidneys. Vitamin D in the bloodstream is converted to a more potent form in the liver and then, converted again to an even more potent form in the kidneys, so making sure to support your liver and kidneys is a must. It’s very important the liver and kidneys are functioning well to ensure these conversions happen.

Vitamin D is such a key nutrient to the optimal health and functioning of our bodies, but chances are very good you (and your children) have less than optimal levels. Make an appointment to get everyone’s vitamin D levels checked and if need be (which I’m sure there will be), pick up a good-quality vitamin D supplement. Then make it a priority to get outside to enjoy the beautiful sunshine any day you can!