In any individual, maintaining health and fitness can be a daunting task. Balancing a healthy diet, exercise plan, and vitamin program can seem like an uphill battle. Each component carries its pros and cons. However, you can tailor each part to everyone’s goals, preferences and body-specific requirements. In terms of vitamins, the body naturally produces some vitamins to aid in resisting infection, providing energy or remodelling body tissues after any injury.
Each vitamin serves a purpose to help the body remain healthy and functioning correctly. But some vitamins the body needs come from outside sources. Vitamin D, for example, is synthesized, or created, when sunlight hits the skin tissue. Though vitamin D can be made by simple sun exposure, it is essential to understand the benefits, risk factors, alternatives and target population for the best results.
Vitamin D 101
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that can be found in some foods and supplements. It promotes calcium absorption within the body, helping to maintain robust bone health. It also helps to prevent involuntary muscle spasms, which can lead to painful cramping. In terms of the animals you find vitamin D in, it predominantly exists in fatty fish and egg yolks (vitamin D3), but you can also find it in some plants and mushrooms (vitamin D2).
Because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, it can be stored in the body for a long time, maintaining bone health throughout the body. But before vitamin D can promote calcium absorption, it has to go through two different processes to become active within the body. First, it is converted to calcidiol in the liver before it is then converted to calcitriol in the kidneys. Calcitriol then binds to vitamin D, becoming its active form to promote calcium absorption.
Vitamin D and Your Health
When sunlight hits your skin, it combines with calciferol on the skin to the active form of vitamin D. In a calendar year, sunlight can be limited in fall/winter months, so it can be an important vitamin for those who may have limited sun exposure in those months. For instance, in older and elderly individuals who may suffer from brittle or soft bones, this may be due to lack of sun exposure during the winter months of the year. In these instances, vitamin D may not be available through sun exposure alone and may be administered in pill form to maintain healthy vitamin D levels within the body. In terms of bone health, vitamin D is effective in treating;
- Hypophosphatemia: Rare bone disorder resulting from low levels of phosphate in the body
- Fanconi Syndrome: Kidney and bone disorder
Aside from promoting bone health, vitamin D also effectively treats;
- Respiratory infections
- Tooth retention
- Heart failure
Vitamin D for the Mind, Body and Soul
Along with bone health, we know vitamin D to be effective in promoting muscle strength and improved cognitive function. As those with a vitamin D deficiency have more brittle or soft bones, muscle function can also be affected by the low levels of vitamin D. While bones become brittle, an individual may not be inclined to do specific movements or activities. It can cause seldom-used muscles to become weak, providing less stability and control for the body. Because of this weakness, those suffering from vitamin D deficiency, like older people, can suffer from falls and balance problems due to muscle atrophy.
As the sun can provide a helpful catalyst to improve a person’s mood, vitamin D can be just as beneficial. In a study conducted by Cuomo et al., they found that individuals who have lower levels of vitamin D during winter months (or months of inadequate sun exposure) may experience increased symptoms of depression. Though they acknowledge more research is needed, “screening for vitamin D deficiency in subjects with depression…may improve depression symptoms”.
In addition to improving muscle and bone health, vitamin D can also play a role in improving cognitive function. In an article from Mayne and Burne (2019), they state that in those with vitamin D deficiency, cognitive function and memory can be negatively affected. By introducing vitamin D supplements into one’s diet, you can improve cognitive function, and mood.
When taken appropriately, vitamin D can be beneficial for everyday health. However, when exceeding the recommended dosage, some side effects can include:
- Loss of appetite
- High Blood Pressure
Though vitamin d toxicity is rare, being aware of the proper dosage needed for consumption is essential when administering the vitamin. For ordinary individuals, the recommended dosage is 400-800 international units (IU) or, 10-12 micrograms daily, while individuals who have limited exposure to the sun may require a higher dosage.
Find the Source
The largest source of vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight. While hanging outside for a short while to get some rays is an easy way to soak in vitamin D, there are a few other sources where you can consume vitamin D. You can find it in fatty fish like salmon and canned tuna, mushrooms, and even egg yolks.
Though there are only a few foods where vitamin D can be found, you can also take it as a supplement. A vitamin D supplement may be a useful option in individuals with limited sun exposure or have low vitamin D in their diets. However, you should take supplements concerning these two factors, to maintain proper dosage and vitamin D levels.
Vitamin D in Food
Although vitamin D is found in only a handful of foods, it provides a vital source in those looking to maintain their vitamin D levels when sun exposure is limited. These foods and their vitamin D levels are:
- 3 oz salmon 444 IU
- 3 oz canned tuna 229 IU
- 3 oz sardines 165 IU
- 8 oz non-fat milk 116 IU
- 8 oz orange juice 100 IU
- 1 large egg 44 IU
- 1 oz cheddar cheese 7 IU
- 8 oz frozen yogurt 5 IU
Look at Other Deficiencies
Whether you follow a vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan or keto diet, there will be nutrients that will inevitably be missing from any specific diet regimen. Instead of focusing on the positives of changing a diet, we get stuck on the negatives, i.e., what we can’t eat. However, this can lead individuals to steer clear of certain foods that contain fats and sugars that also provide nutrients for everyday life. If the body has a lack of vital nutrients, the body is not able to process and absorb these nutrients. This loss of nutrients can lead to deficiencies within the body, which can lead to a variety of health problems.
According to U.S Dietary Guidelines, there are seven critical nutrients in foods that Americans lack in their everyday diets. These nutrients include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
Calcium deficiency, or hypocalcemia, is a condition of low levels of calcium in the blood. Symptoms include osteoporosis, rickets, chest pains, numbness in hands/fingers, muscle cramps, tooth decay and dry skin. It is often a result of low vitamin D within the body, which promotes calcium absorption. The best solution for low levels of calcium is to incorporate foods into one’s diet high in calcium. These foods include:
- Dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese
- White beans/soybeans
- Supplements can be a helpful source of calcium under a physician’s recommendation
Potassium deficiency, or hypokalemia, stems from a sudden loss of fluids caused by excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhoea or blood loss. Potassium helps regulate muscle contraction and function throughout the body. Symptoms of hypokalemia include weakness, muscle cramps, digestive problems, muscle aches/stiffness and heart palpitations. While potassium is in a lot of fruits and vegetables, those who suffer from low potassium may not be inclined to eat these foods. Potassium is also found in:
- Baked potatoes
- Bananas (common source to help with cramps)
- Tomato paste
Fibre is commonly found in several carbohydrates, and promotes gastrointestinal health and regularity while also reducing the risk of heart disease. A lack of fibre in your diet is often manifested in stomach issues like constipation and diarrhoea, while also causing inflammation and low energy. While the amount of fibre needed in your diet relates to age and gender, these foods are excellent sources of fibre for anyone with low fibre in their diet.
- Bran cereal
- Cooked black beans
- English muffin
- Sweet potatoes
- Exotic fruits like mangoes or guavas
- Apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries
- Dark-coloured vegetables
Low magnesium, or hypomagnesemia, is a less common dietary disorder occurring in individuals. Magnesium is a nutrient that promotes immune system and bone strength within the body. Common symptoms of hypomagnesemia include muscle cramps, mental disorders, osteoporosis, fatigue, high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. Most caused by low dietary intake, magnesium can be found in;
- Brazil nuts
- Bran cereal
Vitamin A, C and E Deficiency
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient that promotes immune system and vision health. A lack of vitamin A can cause dry skin, dry eyes, night blindness, respiratory infections and delayed growth. Baked potatoes, carrots and spinach are all useful sources of vitamin A that you can incorporate into a diet under proper physician guidance.
Like vitamin A, vitamin C promotes immune health and is also an antioxidant. A lack of vitamin C can lead to scurvy, a disease which can cause excessive bleeding, fatigue, pain/swelling of the lower limbs and loss of teeth in extreme cases. When looking for foods to help incorporate vitamin C into your diet, it can be helpful to consider “C=citrus”. As oranges, limes, mandarins and other citrus fruits are high in vitamin C, these can be easily added to your diet to create an influx of vitamin C.
Vitamin E is composed of fat-soluble compounds that promote antioxidant activities. Traditionally found in foods with high-fat contents, those with who tend to cut fats out of their diets will be more likely to have a deficiency of this nutrient. This deficiency can cause nerve and muscle damage, muscle weakness, vision loss and a weakened immune system. When it comes to maintaining proper vitamin E levels, separating “good” fats from “bad” fats can be just as important as counting the calories within these foods. Trans fats raise blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, while monounsaturated fats can provide a beneficial effect on heart health and serve as a healthier replacement for trans fats. Some good sources of vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, peanut butter and tomato sauce.
Putting Vitamin D in Your Diet
Adding vitamin D to your diet can be as easy as visiting your local seafood market. By adding more fatty fish like salmon and halibut into your diet, you not only increase natural vitamin D, you also increase the intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which improve heart health. Canned tuna is also a great source of vitamin D and are a less expensive option as opposed to fresh fish.
Aside from fatty fish, mushrooms like portobellos are a good source of vitamin D. They can also serve as a healthy alternative for those looking for a more plant-based option. For beverages, a healthy source of vitamin D is fortified milk. Usually all milk made in the U.S is fortified (except for cheese and ice cream). One 8 oz glass of milk can provide 100 IU of vitamin D, a substantial portion of the required daily intake (400-800 IU).
Vitamin D supplements can also be a safe and easily accessible source to provide healthy levels of vitamin D within the blood. Though it is recommended to speak with your doctor before resorting to vitamin D supplements, they can stimulate bone health and growth organically.
Whether it’s by getting some sun (safely), eating more fatty fish or implementing a supplement program into your diet, vitamin D is a great source to improve health and mood for everyday life. By understanding your vitamin D needs, you, along with your doctor, can make the right choices to help improve your vitamin D levels.