Vitamin D deficiency: How to compensate for the lack of sun
What can we do about widespread vitamin D deficiency?
Vitamin D deficiency is widespread and especially prevalent in the winter months. Choosing a high-quality supplement is crucial to getting through the long, dark winter, and getting adequate sun exposure is key in the sunny months.
Vitamin D deficiency
Basically, if you live north of Texas, you are almost certainly deficient in vitamin D in the winter. Especially if you live in the US’s northern reaches – New England, Minnesota, Washington, Montana, etc., you are not getting sufficient sunshine to produce your own vitamin D. Where I live in Illinois, from about October to May, the sun is much lower in the sky, so even if you go outside naked, you will not make much vitamin D in your skin. The good news is that the rest of the year, the sun does facilitate endogenous (within your own body) production of vitamin D. The bad news is that you have to do something extra during the winter months. In fact, due to lives spent increasingly indoors and increased sunscreen use, many people are even deficient in vitamin D in the summer months.
You have several options to combat vitamin D deficiency in the winter months. Options include vacationing some places warm and sunny during the winter like Florida or southern California. You can also try to get vitamin D from food or take a supplement during the winter. I always recommend “food first” for my patients, but there are not many good food sources in this vitamin. vitamin D can be found in oily fish (mackerel, sardines, herring, salmon), egg yolks, red meat, liver, mushrooms, and fortified foods such as milk and cereal, but even these foods supply only a small dose of “the sunshine vitamin.”
What type of vitamin D?
It is important always to buy D3; this is the active form that the body can use. Some products are D2 which is inactive and requires activation by your body. This is less ideal as it requires an additional step which means the product is less bioavailable. Capsules are easier for your body to digest than a tablet. Tablets are often mechanically compressed, which makes them much harder for your body to break up.
Before taking any supplement, talk to your healthcare provider and get a vitamin D blood test done to check your status. This article is meant to inform and not meant as medical advice – always speak to your doctor before starting new supplements. In my practice, I find that many patients are very deficient in vitamin D. For those patients, I may recommend 10,000 IU of vitamin D daily for 3 months. For mildly deficient patients, 5,000 IU daily is a better dose for the winter months. Always take fat-soluble vitamins with a meal (vitamins A, E, D, and K), so your body can better absorb them.
When choosing nutritional supplements, it can feel like the Wild West. I trust companies that utilize independent third-party testing for purity, quality, potency, and contaminants. Many supplement companies do not take this optional step as FDA regulations for supplements in the US do not require it. Some reputable brands that I use in my practice include Vital Nutrients, Pure Encapsulations, Thorne, Innate Response, Integrative Therapeutics, Designs for Health, and Douglas Labs.
When it comes to sunshine, you need direct exposure to sunlight on your skin to produce vitamin D. I generally recommend 20 minutes of exposure to the face, chest, and arms per day unless you are very fair-skinned and will burn with that amount of sunshine. After 20 minutes, make sure to apply sunscreen to protect yourself against damage from too much sun exposure.
Why does vitamin D matter?
Simply put, vitamin D does a lot of things in the body. It regulates calcium absorption and is therefore crucial for bone health. Vitamin D plays a role in gut health, and so affects mood and immune function. Vitamin D deficiency is thought to play a role in seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Several studies have connected between living further from the equator (greater risk of vitamin D deficiency) and having an increased risk for autoimmune conditions like MS (multiple sclerosis).
Make sure you find out your status with a simple blood test, and then work with your healthcare provider to explore your options to optimize your vitamin D levels. Sun exposure works for certain times of the year depending on where you live but sometimes supplementing is the best way to maintain levels of this essential nutrient.