How Do You Know If You Should Be Taking a Vitamin D Supplement?

I am a total sun worshipper. Both my parents are too so it makes sense why I grew up absolutely loving the sunshine and travelling anywhere there was a beach to be found. Luckily, my boyfriend is as beach and sun obsessed as I am, so we like to travel to the same types of places and go on vacations that involve sun, sand, and poolside cocktails! You do pay a price with loving the sun so much, though, with obvious health risks at play from indulging in too much tan-time. On the other hand, there are many health benefits to a little sunshine exposure.

Vitamin D, otherwise known as the "sunshine vitamin" is made in your skin when exposed to sunlight and can be obtained in sufficient enough quantities with as little as 15 minutes of sun exposure. In spite of that, vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world! The most comprehensive Canadian survey on vitamin D found widespread deficiencies of the sunshine vitamin, which is being promoted for everything from the prevention of cancer to reducing heart attack risk. Furthermore, Statistics Canada found more than three million people have such low readings that they don't have enough for good bone health. The fact that tests show 60 to 70 per cent of Canadians have inadequate levels is quite alarming, given that vitamin D insufficiency has been linked to so many chronic diseases.

In this blog post I want to highlight why vitamin D is so imperative to your health, how much vitamin D you need to reduce your risk of Vitamin D deficient health problems.

What Is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that functions like a steroid hormone in the body.

The two 2 forms of vitamin D in the diet are:

Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol): found in some mushroom species.

Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol): found in oily fish and egg yolks.

Of these two forms, D3 is the more powerful and raises blood levels of vitamin D almost double that of D2.

It has been nicknamed the sunshine vitamin because every cell in your body has vitamin D receptors and large amounts of vitamin D can be made in your skin when it is exposed to UV-rays from sunlight. Any excess vitamin D is stored in your body fat for later use.

Vitamin D is needed for optimal bone health, immune system function and cancer protection.

How Common Is Vitamin D Deficiency?

Vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide problem. With that said, some populations and demographics are more at risk than others.

It is especially common in young women, infants, the elderly, and Statscan also found a huge vitamin D disparity among Canadians based on racial origin, with whites having substantially higher concentrations than the prevailing levels in the country's growing non-white population. Light skinned people had an average of nearly 40 per cent more of the nutrient than non-whites.

If you live in a sunny environment all year, then occasional sun exposure may be enough to fulfill your vitamin D requirements. However, if you live far north or south of the equator then your vitamin D levels may fluctuate depending on the season. With that in mind, it is recommended you take a vitamin D supplement during the winter months.

Without sufficient vitamin D, it may cause muscle weakness, bone loss, and an increase risk of bone fractures.

In children, a severe vitamin D deficiency can cause delays in growth, and more severely, rickets, a disease where the bones become soft.

Furthermore, vitamin D deficiency has been linked with several cancers, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure and thyroid problems.

How Much Vitamin D Should You Take?

There is no short answer to this question, as many factors are at play when it comes to determining how much Vitamin D you need, including season, latitude, race, age, total sun exposure, and more.

Health Canada's daily recommended intakes (RDAs) for vitamin D, updated in 2011, are 400 international units (IU) for infants, 600 IU for children aged one to adults aged 70, and 800 IU for adults over 70. Health Canada's safe upper limit is 4,000 IU per day. Osteoporosis Canada advises healthy adults aged 19-50 consume 400-1,000 IU daily, and those over 50 get 800-2,000 IU daily. The organization advises year-round vitamin D supplementation for all Canadian adults.

What about food?

Foods that provide sufficient enough vitamin D naturally are far and few between, but include:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon (447 IU per 3 ounces) or fish liver oil

  • Egg yolk (41 IU per yolk)

  • Cheese (14 IU per 2 ounces of cheddar)

  • Fortified beverages including milk, non dairy milk, some brands of orange juice (100 IU per one cup)

Can We Get Enough Vitamin D from the Sun Alone?

Summer sun exposure is a great way to get Vitamin D, however, the amount of sunlight that is needed varies. Older individuals and dark-skinned people produce less vitamin D in the skin, so geographic location and seasons are very important factors to consider for these populations because even though the sun may be shining, it is not necessarily strong enough to produce vitamin D.

In the more than 70 countries that are positioned north of 35°N, no vitamin D is produced during the winter months.

Further north, in countries like Norway (69°N), no vitamin D is produced from October until March.

Factors such as clothing, weather, pollution, sunscreen use, weight and genetics may also affect the body's ability to produce vitamin D.

Even though sunlight may be a major source of vitamin D for many people, the RDAs are based on getting minimal sun exposure. It is estimated that up to 15 minutes of daily sun exposure on the hands, arms and face around 12 p.m. during the spring, summer and early fall can provide light-skinned Canadians with 1,000 IU of vitamin D. However, people with dark-coloured skin and older adults make considerably less vitamin D from the sun's ultraviolet B rays, the portion of sunlight that stimulates our skin to produce the vitamin. Therefore, these populations may need a little more time in the sun during summer months.

Even in the summer, you may be making less vitamin D than you think. This is not to say you should stop applying sunscreen, as UV radiation is known to cause skin cancer, but sunscreen reduces your ability to produce vitamin D by more than 90 per cent.

How much is too much?

As previously mentioned, Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that is stored in fat cells. Because of this, excess doses can build up to harmful levels, causing high blood calcium and damage to the heart, blood vessels and kidneys. However, vitamin D toxicity is unlikely at daily intakes below 10,000 IU.

Emerging evidence also suggests there may be adverse health risks associated with blood vitamin D levels that are higher than recommended, but not yet at the point where they would be considered toxic. This is why Health Canada has set the safe upper limit for vitamin D at 4,000 IU per day.

Take Home Message

Vitamin D is essential for bone health and reducing the risk of many other health problems, including cancer.

Vitamin D deficiency is incredibly common, and can have severe health consequences if not treated.

If you're thinking about adding more vitamin D to your diet, consider the following:

Canadians aren't getting enough from the sun and our food, and therefore a vitamin D supplement is necessary. Osteoporosis Canada advises healthy adults aged 19-50 consume 400-1,000 IU daily, and those over 50 get 800-2,000 IU daily.

If you live in an environment where you have sun exposure year-round, then you may not need extra vitamin D as long as you make sure to get enough sun.

The only way to know if you actually need to take a vitamin D supplement is to have your blood levels measured.

Vitamin D is highly important to your overall health and reversing a deficiency is simple, cheap and can have immense health benefits.

Although I love sun tanning and bask in the sun all summer long, as a Vancouver born gal, I know I am not getting sufficient enough Vitamin D year-round and need a supplement. After all, I am a health and wellness practitioner who practices what I preach! Speaking of sunshine...1 month countdown until my boyfriend and I depart to tropical paradise and soak in some Mexico sun!

Do you live in Canada? Are you going to start taking Vitamin D? Do you know someone who should? Share the love and send this to a friend.

Chelsea Ellacott

'Commit to be Fit'