When we were kids, many of us spent hours every week playing outside. As we grew older, though, the time we spent playing in the sun kept shrinking. Add in (justifiable) worries about skin cancer and few adults get much direct sunlight these days. This lack of direct sunlight is the leading cause of vitamin D deficiency.
Although mainly famous for its role in bone health, vitamin D also promotes healthy cell growth and reduces inflammation. In addition, it boosts your immune system. In this post, we describe healthy levels of vitamin D and how to reach the recommended daily goals.
How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?
The amount of vitamin D you need every day varies according to your age. But, for the majority of your life (ages 1 through 70), you need 600 IU according to the National Institutes of Health. Once you turn 70, the number jumps to 800 IU.
It’s important to note that this is the number required for optimum health. If you have a severe deficiency, your doctor may recommend many times this amount – up to 4,000 IU daily. To reach that daily goal, you would need to take a dietary supplement.
How Do You Get Vitamin D?
The majority of vitamins humans require come from our food. Vitamin D is an exception to that rule. Although some foods contain vitamin D, most contain such small levels that there is little chance of getting the amount your body requires through diet alone.
You can get all the vitamin D your body needs simply by spending time in the sun. Ultraviolet rays trigger vitamin D synthesis in the liver and kidneys. The trick is getting the right amount of sunlight, which varies depending on the time of year, where you live, and your skin tone (more on that in a minute).
Next to the sun, dietary supplements are your best means of getting vitamin D. However, not all supplements are created equal. Talk to your doctor about which type is best.
In addition, some foods contain vitamin D. Most contain very little, considering you need 600 IU per day. Choices include:
If you eat sardines, tuna, salmon, or swordfish daily, you can get enough vitamin D from your diet. Otherwise, you need sunshine and/or a supplement.
Sunlight, Skin Tone, and Vitamin D
Melanin not only creates the color of your skin, it also protects your body against UV exposure. (This is one of the reasons that having fair skin is a skin cancer risk.)
The more melanin you have, the darker your skin is. But, the darker your skin is, the more protection it has against UV rays, which means your body needs more sunlight exposure to create vitamin D compared to people with lighter skin tones.
In addition, much depends on the strength of the sun, which varies according to where you live as well as the time of year. For example, people who live in Arizona need far less direct sun exposure than people who live in Alaska.
Fairly light-skinned people need as little as 10 minutes during summer months and up to 20 minutes during the winter. If your skin is very dark, though, you may need an hour or more of direct sunlight, especially during cooler months. Talk to your doctor to determine how much sun you actually need and whether you can break that exposure into multiple sessions throughout the day or week.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Vitamin D?
For optimum brain and bone health, our bodies need vitamin D. It helps your body absorb the calcium in your food for strong, healthy bones. Vitamin D deficiency is the main culprit behind osteoporosis and the brittle bones that become more common as we age, making fractures more likely.
Other issues linked to a deficiency of vitamin D include:
- Weakened immune system and greater risk of infection
- Increased mortality for those with cardiovascular disease
- Insulin resistance, which raises your risk of diabetes, glucose intolerance, and multiple sclerosis
- The bone disease rickets, which causes skeletal deformities and soft bones
- Impaired cognitive function
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of noticeable symptoms when you have a vitamin D deficiency. You may experience bone pain, chronic fatigue, muscle weakness, and muddled thought processes. If you don’t eat the foods listed above, spend time outdoors, or take a supplement, you should probably ask your doctor to perform a 25-Hydroxy vitamin D blood test. If your doctor orders it, Medicare covers most laboratory services, including blood work.
How Do You Treat a Vitamin D Deficiency?
If your doctor determines you have a vitamin D deficiency, he or she will likely advise you to take a supplement, make some dietary changes, and get more time in the sun. Increasing your vitamin D intake is really the only treatment option.
As always, if you have any questions about your Medicare coverage, you can call one of our licensed agents toll-free at 844-655-4347.