Vitamin D: Benefits, Deficiency and Sources

Vitamin D is in the spotlight these days. An alarming number of us are low. Here is what you need to know!

It may interest you to know what no matter where you live, an estimated 30 to even 100% of Americans are vitamin D deficient. When we think of sources of vitamin D, we think of drinking milk and getting out in the sun. The funny thing is, those of us that do protect ourselves with sunscreen are not getting the benefits of vitamin D because the sunblock keeps our bodies from vitamin D absorption.

So how do we get more vitamin D and what are the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency? You'd be surprised. Here is what you need to know.

Benefits of Vitamin D

Did you know that a Vitamin D deficiency can lead to many different diseases and health problems in women? It's one of the most important building blocks our body has. Without enough Vitamin D. many of a woman's systems are missing an important ingredient. And it's easy to get enough Vitamin D. You just have to pay attention!  We hear about the importance of calcium for our bones, but the benefits of Vitamin D are just as important if not more so. They do work together. Vitamin D is so important to women, especially as we age, that it could even be called a woman's guardian angel. It is now considered one of the most important supplements to monitor and frankly, it is very difficult for an active woman to get too much of it.

Vitamin D deficiencies often occur in women who don't get out in the sun much (less than 10 minutes of direct sunlight per day), who have kidney problems or whose body has a hard time processing Vitamin D from food.  A Vitamin D deficiency can lead to osteoporosis, frequent broken bones (especially hip), weak muscles, and can possibly increase the risk of some cancers.

Some steroids taken for medical conditions in women may slow or stop the body's ability to absorb the benefits of Vitamin D from the sun.  A doctor can counteract this by suggesting a change in diet or adding supplements that are high in Vitamin D.  Unfortunately, there were few studies about Vitamin D until recently; and more information is expected based upon current studies.  It is now believed that there may have been more health risks caused by Vitamin D deficiencies than have been formerly thought.

Recent studies have determined that it's almost impossible to overdose on Vitamin D and current research is still working to determine how much is too much.  It's now believed that women can safely ingest up to 4000 to 8000 IU's supplemental Vitamin D per day with great benefit.  In fact most women it now appears absolutely need that much more than their current diets and sun exposure are giving them.

Most women will not be able to get enough Vitamin D unless they regularly eat a lot of cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel or sardines that are canned in oil.  Some dietary supplements or weight loss pills can be high in Vitamin D, so women should check the levels before starting a new product.  Many women do get basically what they need of Vitamin D through food and sun exposure.  This is especially true for women who spend a lot of time in the sun wearing sun block that is less than SPV 8.  These women are getting Vitamin D sun exposure naturally through their skin, which is the best way of getting Vitamin D into a body.  But most  women have been warned  by dermatologists to wear no less than SPV 15 sunblock.  That amount of sunblock unfortunately keeps a woman's body from experiencing the positive effects of sun exposure and the levels needed to metabolize and create usable vitamin D in their systems.

Vitamin D has long been known for its important role in mineralization of bone and in regulating the levels of calcium and phosphorus in our body. It may play a role in the prevention and/or treatment of the following health conditions: Atherosclerosis Heart Disease, Hypertension, Breast cancer, Colon cancer, Prostate cancer, Skin cancer, Mental Illness, Depression, Epilepsy, Muscle Weakness, Chronic Pain, Inflammatory bowel disease, Kidney disease, Liver disease, Multiple sclerosis, Osteoporosis, Osteoarthritis, Periodontal disease, Preeclampsia, Psoriasis, Tinnitus, Diabetes, Obesity, Ulcerative colitis.

It was originally classified in 1922 as a vitamin by a British researcher, Edward Mellanby while researching a disease called rickets.

Vitamins are defined as nutrients that are necessary for the proper functioning of the body's tissues and organs but cannot be produced by our body. By this definition, although “Vitamin D” is essential for calcium and phosphorus metabolism in our body and is required for the normal development of healthy bones and teeth, it is produced by our body when our skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun and therefore it does not satisfy the definition of the “Vitamin”. To add to the confusion, scientists say that there are two types of Vitamin D; Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol).

The standard for measurement of Vitamin D is 25(OH)D (25-hydroxy vitamin D) and it is the best indicator of Vitamin D in our body.

Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is converted from its basic building block, cholesterol, when ultraviolet rays from the sun hit the cells of our skin. Vitamin D3 must be metabolized by the liver and then by the kidneys and converted into hormonal form of Vitamin D.

Vitamin D2 is plant-based and is converted from its basic building block, ergosterol, to Vitamin D2 state when sunlight hits the leaves of the plant. It does not occur in humans and is only half as potent as D3 (cholecalciferol), does not raise serum 25(OH)D as effectively, is less bioavailable, is poorly metabolized and has shorter half-life than Vitamin D3. It is not considered equivalent to Vitamin D3 and has been associated with most of the Vitamin D toxicity.

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy has not established an RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowances) for Vitamin D, only an AI (Adequate Intake) for otherwise healthy persons to avoid metabolic bone disease.

It was believed that 400 iu (international unit) per day was adequate. But this level turned out to be low and even 1000 iu per day was not enough for people with low level of Vitamin D to reach optimum serum level now being recommended. The 1000 iu has now become the very basic level for normal persons in addition to sunlight. Often more, to the extent of 2000 iu per day indefinitely may be needed in some cases. However, in such cases, their Vitamin D level must be tested first and then retested yearly. Individuals with osteoporosis and breast, prostate and immune health issues have greater Vitamin D needs. These individuals and those with other health concerns should consult their doctor before beginning with Vitamin regimen.

A healthy sunlight exposure for 10 to 15 minutes daily without sunscreen and without burning and taking Vitamin D3 supplement is recommended for all ages.

Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency

The level of vitamin D we need depends on many factors, including age, weight, body fat percentage, where you live, color of skin, time of the year and sunblock use. Older people notably need more than younger people and if you live in a cold or northern climate, chances are you need more. There is a test you can ask your doctor or naturopath to perform so you know how much you need.

If you are low on vitamin D, you may be experiencing the following symptoms.
  • Muscle aches or weakness
  • Fatigue, joint pain or even chronic pain
  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle cramps
  • Trouble with concentration
  • Restlessness while sleeping
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Bladder issues

Diseases Associated with Low Vitamin D
  • Infertility and PMS
  • Obesity
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid and Osteoarthritis
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder and Depression
  • Periodontal Disease
  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Bursitis and Gout
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome
  • Seventeen varieties of cancer, including breast, colon and prostate
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia
  • Psoriasis

Sources of Vitamin D 

The Sun:

Doctors seem to differ on sun exposure and this has to do with the type of practice they specialize in. I know my regular doctor told me when I was very low, to get out in the sun for 10 minutes every day without sunscreen. However, any dermatologist will tell you to use the sunscreen and opt for supplements.


The number of food sources containing naturally occurring vitamin D are few. Cod liver oil is the best food source, followed by fish, including salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Most commercially available milk in the U.S. is fortified with Vitamin D, however other dairy products (such as cheese and ice cream) are typically not fortified. Other foods that may include added vitamin D are breakfast cereals, orange juice, yogurt, and margarine.

- One tablespoon of cod liver oil equals 1,360 international units, which is a bit below the recommended dosage (2,000 IU). But all I can say, is "ick!"
- Three ounces of salmon amounts to about 800 IU. Just be sure you are getting good salmon and not the fish with mercury.
- Fortified milk and orange juice provides 100 IU.
- Mushrooms that are irradiated equals 400 IU.


Vitamin D supplements exist on the market and your doctor can determine with a vitamin D test how much you need. This includes multivitamins, as well as
single supplements of vitamin D2 or D3. New evidence from the National Institutes of Health suggests that the two forms are metabolized differently, and that vitamin D3 can be up to three times more effective on the human body than D2.

The most abundant source for vitamin D is the sun. However, amidst fears of developing skin cancer, many people have taken grand precautions against sun exposure. There is a huge market for sun block, sunglasses with UV protection, and other products to protect people from the rays of the sun. As a result, there has been a sharp increase in the amount of vitamin D deficiency being observed and treated today.

Wearing Too Much Sun Block Can Be Costly

As most people are very focused on making sure that they are not getting too much sun, they tend to go overboard and end up with not enough sun exposure. By being in the sun even just fifteen minutes per day, the average person is able to soak up a healthy amount of vitamin D. However, when constantly protected by layer after layer of sun block, that absorption does not happen.

Adding to this predicament is emerging research findings that what was previously believed to be an adequate amount of vitamin D is actually not enough. This is particularly important for women who often are found to have a vitamin D deficiency. Women lacking in vitamin D are more prone to bone loss, weakened immune systems, and even breast cancer. More benefits of vitamin D in the body are being uncovered each and every day. While sun block is a valuable tool in the fight against skin cancer, there is such a thing as too much when it prevents people from absorbing a required nutrient.

There are many who will bring up the fact that it is possible to take vitamin D supplements. Although this is true, the quality and level of absorption of the vitamin differs greatly between what comes out of a pill bottle or liquid dropper and what comes naturally. More sun vitamin D means more of the vitamin being absorbed into the body to be used as it is needed. The question of what happens during bleak winter months often is brought up as a barrier to obtaining the vitamin naturally. However, nature is not without wisdom. The body is able to store vitamin D for an amazingly long time, making it possible for levels to be maintained even through some of the longest winters. Vitamin D deficiency is not necessarily a naturally occurring phenomenon when these facts are considered. The quality of the vitamin when coming from natural sunlight also differs. There is no way for people to synthetically make exactly what is obtained naturally, so what is found on store shelves is not as good as what is found outside in the suns rays. When you get more sun, vitamin D is naturally present.

It's important to understand that there are no extreme measures involved in getting more vitamin D from the sun. Most experts agree that in order to benefit, all a person really needs is ten to fifteen minutes of sun on the face and hands a day. This is a far cry from sunbathing by the pool for an afternoon. Most people can get outdoors or near a sunny window for this small amount of time without any difficulty. Considering the number of women deficient in vitamin D and suffering the horrible effects of that condition, it seems worthwhile to forego the sun block for a brief period each day.

Vitamin D works with calcium and phosphorous to build strong bones and teeth. It also works with vitamins A and C to fight colds and build the immune system. Research by the vitamin D Council links its deficiency with cancers, heart disease, autoimmune disease, depression, osteoporosis, birth defects, and more.


There are three main forms of vitamin D. Cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) is the only naturally occurring form. It's made in the skin, and can also be taken as a supplement. Calcidiol is a prehormone in the blood, and determines vitamin D deficiencies in human blood tests. Calcitriol is a steroid hormone found in the kidneys and tissues. It's the most potent steroid hormone in the human body, and has anti-cancer properties. Both Calcidiol and Calcitriol are derived from naturally occurring vitamin D3.

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