In Ask a Dermatologist

With so much emphasis placed on wearing sunscreen, you might wonder about the nutrients you’re missing out on without the sun’s rays. Vitamin D tops that list.

Vitamin D deficiency is becoming a health concern all over the world. In fact, low vitamin D intake is estimated to affect nearly 13% of the world’s population. Because vitamin D is not abundant in our food sources, and the sun is not a reliable source for everyone, let’s take a closer look at the best ways to increase your vitamin D intake – while still protecting your skin from harmful UV and UVB rays.

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that has numerous health benefits, most notably building and maintaining healthy bones. It is a fat-soluble vitamin that aids in calcium absorption, mineralization and promoting bone growth.

What are the benefits of vitamin D?

While vitamin D has always been known to promote healthy bones, researchers are now finding that it may be vital to other functions of the body. Multiple recent studies suggest that it goes beyond just bone health by reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, autoimmune diseases, diabetes and more.

Your body uses vitamin D to manage not only the amount of calcium in your bones but also calcium in your blood and gut. Additionally, it helps cells all over your body communicate effectively. The benefits of Vitamin D can improve functions including:

  • Immune system
  • Cardiovascular function
  • Brain development
  • Respiratory system
  • Anti-cancer effects
  • Muscle function

How much vitamin D do you need?

There is significant debate about the amount of vitamin D needed for maximum health benefits. The U.S. National Academy of Medicine recommends 600 to 800 IU of vitamin D daily, though these numbers are based solely on bone health and not emerging research concerning other conditions. The U.S. Endocrine Society recommends 1,500 to 2,000 IU daily.

The current Reference Daily Intake (RDI), regulated by the FDA, is set at 600 to 800 IU of vitamin D a day for adults. It is suggested that a daily intake of up to 4,000 IU of vitamin D is safe for most people.

How do you get vitamin D?

Your body makes its own vitamin D from sunlight. You can also get it from the foods you consume, as well as vitamin supplements.

Sunlight

Vitamin D is often referred to as “the sunshine vitamin,” as the sun is one of the best sources of this nutrient. It is derived from the sun and may even circulate for twice as long as vitamin D from food or supplements.

Fortunately, it takes very little unprotected sun exposure before your body starts producing vitamin D. While there is no absolute rule for how much sun is a safe and appropriate amount, numerous studies suggest as few as 8 to 15 minutes of sun exposure three times per week is enough to provide adequate vitamin D for light-skinned people. People with darker skin may need more time.

While the sun is a significant source of vitamin D, it is vital to avoid overexposure to sunlight to prevent skin cancer. Never allow your skin to burn, and always apply sunscreen after no more than 30 minutes of unprotected sunlight, and even less if you are fair-skinned. Refer to these dermatologist-recommended sunscreen tips.

Fatty fish

Unless you maintain a diet that includes high levels of fish liver oils or fatty fish, it may be difficult to get enough vitamin D naturally through food alone. Seafood and fatty fish are some of the richest natural vitamin D sources you can consume. A 3.5-ounce serving of canned salmon provides nearly 386 IU of vitamin D or about half of the RDI.

Fish and seafood rich in vitamin D include:

  • Shrimp
  • Oysters
  • Tuna
  • Mackerel
  • Anchovies
  • Sardines

Fortified foods

Because so few foods contain naturally high levels of vitamin D, it is often added to staple foods in a process known as fortification. Fortified dairy is a primary dietary source of vitamin D. Other fortified foods include:

  • Milk alternatives such as soy, almond and hemp
  • Some cereals
  • Orange juice
  • Tofu
  • Certain types of yogurt

Mushrooms and egg yolks

Mushrooms are the only 100% plant-based source of vitamin D. Mushrooms make their own vitamin D through UV exposure, just like humans. Because of their exposure to sunlight, wild mushrooms typically contain more vitamin D than commercially grown varieties. Egg yolks are another great source of vitamin D that you can easily add to your diet.

Supplements

For many people, taking a vitamin D supplement will ensure adequate vitamin D intake. However, research suggests that some people have difficulty absorbing the nutrient through supplements. It is best to purchase high-quality supplements that have been independently tested, and always consult with your doctor before starting any supplement.

The bottom line

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that we need for overall well-being. You can boost your vitamin D intake through moderate sun exposure, eating vitamin D rich foods and taking supplements.

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