The Sunnier Side of Vitamin D

The Sunnier Side of Vitamin D

When was the last time you had your vitamin D level checked? Vitamin D is a powerhouse nutrient for health. Known as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is made when your skin is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. It can be challenging to get a daily dose if you work indoors or live in a northern climate with minimal sun exposure most of the year. Therefore, chances are your vitamin D levels are low.

Historically, vitamin D has been recognized for its symbiotic relationship with calcium. Vitamin D increases the efficiency of the intestine to absorb dietary calcium, making it critically important for the development, growth and maintenance of healthy bones from birth to old age.

However, research reveals that vitamin D does much more than fend off bone diseases, such as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. It’s a special nutrient that does real wonders in the body.

“Let’s start with the reality that vitamin D is not a vitamin. It’s a hormone that has many varied actions in the body,” says Patrick Massey, MD, PhD, MhD, president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy and former medical director of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

Some acute and chronic illnesses have been shown to worsen in patients with low vitamin D levels. The reverse is also true: When vitamin D levels are adequate, illnesses can improve. “Low levels of vitamin D increase the risk of infections, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, multiple sclerosis and autoimmune diseases,” Massey explains. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked with an increased risk of certain cancers.

Vitamin D also affects your DNA, Massey says. Nearly every cell has a receptor on its membrane for vitamin D, and although every cell will do something different with vitamin D, there is a general notion that vitamin D binds to these receptors and is transported into the nucleus of the cell where it plays a role in gene expression.

How much vitamin D should you get?

For many of us, it’s likely that we’re not getting enough vitamin D in our day-to-day life. Sun exposure has gone down as skin cancer protection becomes more of a mainstay, and there are not many foods that naturally contain vitamin D.

“Natural food sources include egg yolks, mushrooms grown in UV light and fatty fish, such as sockeye salmon, canned tuna and sardines,” explains Rachelle LaCroix Mallik, MA, RD, LDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and owner of The Food Therapist, LLC, a private practice specializing in nutrition for reproductive health. There are also vitamin D-fortified foods, such as milk, non-dairy milk, orange juice and some yogurt and cheese (check food labels to see if vitamin D is in the product).

“It’s difficult to get enough vitamin D depending on the time of year, [as well as a person’s] skin color, sunlight exposure and use of sunscreen,” Mallik explains. “I recommend most people take a daily vitamin D supplement, especially in winter in Chicago when it’s difficult to obtain enough from sunlight.”

Infants who are exclusively and partially breastfed should get a daily supplemental dose, as breast milk does not contain adequate amounts of vitamin D, Mallik says. She recommends that breastfeeding moms take a supplement with enough vitamin D for themselves and baby or give their infant daily vitamin D drops.

Here’s the kicker: Supplementation with an adequate dose of vitamin D can be tricky since everyone has different needs based on health status and baseline vitamin D levels. With vitamin D having a myriad of other functions besides calcium balance and bone health, varying amounts are needed based on different illnesses. Therefore, the current recommendation of 600 IUs for adults and 400 IUs for children isn’t necessarily adequate, Massey says.

The best — and only — way to correctly dose your own vitamin D needs is by working with a physician to measure levels of vitamin D in your blood, Massey says.

“I have some patients who do not absorb vitamin D very well, and they need to take 50,000 IUs several times a week [to] barely get into the reference range,” Massey says. Although, many physicians are worried about vitamin D toxicity because it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, Massey contends, “[Vitamin D] is not a vitamin, it is a hormone; toxicity is rare.”

Since amounts may differ depending on the individual, consider asking your physician for a blood test to assess your vitamin D level — for the health of your bones and the rest of your body.

Vitimin D in food sunshine vitamin


  • Reply Marc March 16, 2018 at 10:27 am

    Great article. Here are more reasons to actively embrace the sun.
    •Women who actively seek the sun have half the risk of death compared with those who avoid the sun.
    •A Spanish study shows that women who seek the sun have one-eleventh the hip-fracture risk as those who avoid sun.
    •Men who work outdoors have half the risk of melanoma as those who work indoors.
    •Women who avoid the sun have 10-times the risk of breast cancer as those who embrace the sun.
    •Women who sunbathe regularly have half the risk of death during a 20-year period compared to those who stay indoors.
    •Sun exposure increases nitric oxide production, which leads to a decrease in heart disease risk.
    •Sun exposure dramatically improves mood through the production of serotonin and endorphin.
    •full-body sun exposure for 20 minutes can produce 20,000 IU of vitamin D, which is essential to human health
    •Sun exposure increases the production of BDNF, essential to a properly functioning nervous system.
    For more information: Sunlight Institute website:

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