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It’s clear that we require vitamin D for good health. But few people are getting what they need. We’ve enlisted the help of award-winning dietitian and author of Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sports + Adventure Matthew Kadey for a rundown on why we might be coming up short in the Vitamin D department and the strategies needed to overcome the shortfall.

In the past couple of decades, research has shown that vitamin D is an important player in our overall health status.  It’s long been known that vitamin D is a crucial nutrient for building and maintain strong bones. The sunshine vitamin is vital to the proper absorption of calcium, which is why studies show that adequate intakes of calcium without also having enough vitamin D has little impact on bone health. But vitamin D is no single-hit wonder. The latest batch of studies postulates that vitamin D is also involved in boosting heart health, improving sleep patterns, helping improve brain functioning such as lessening the risk for depression, slashing the chances of developing diabetes and even enhancing muscle functioning in athletes. Why the overarching health perks? Vitamin D behaves more like a hormone than a vitamin and is essential for proper cell-to-cell communication and cell functioning. Yes, this is one nutrient that is the real deal.

But despite the finer points of vitamin D, most Americans are coming up short. The Institute of Medicine, a medical body that sets nutrient requirement guidelines, recommends a daily vitamin D intake of 600 international units (IU) for most age groups. A number of vitamin D researchers and other health experts, however, believe that this is too cautious and at least 1,000 IU is needed to reap all that vitamin D has to offer.  Evidence suggests that about three-quarters of Americans likely have insufficient blood vitamin D levels. Results published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that nearly 1 billion people worldwide may have deficient or insufficient levels of vitamin D.

The human body can produce the active form of vitamin D in the skin courtesy of the sun’s rays, but during the winter months, few Americans are able to synthesize useful amounts. As we increasingly spend more of our day indoors and then slather on sunscreen when we do venture outside during warmer months, the ability to make vitamin D decreases further. Those with darker skin pigmentation such as African Americans will have a harder time making vitamin D from the yellow orb above. Lactose intolerance and being overweight, a reality for an increasing number of North Americans, also tends to have a negative impact on vitamin D levels. And disease states like diabetes, Chron’s and celiac can inhibit the body’s ability to metabolize vitamin D from food sources.

To help make sure that you get the vitamin D needed to promote better health, take heed of these suggestions.

Go fish: A big reason why we have so much trouble in achieving healthy vitamin D levels is that few foods contain useful amounts. Some UV-exposed mushrooms are a source as are certain fortified foods like cereals, milk, non-dairy milk beverages and orange juice. But sometimes what is added to foods is less absorbable vitamin D2 and since vitamin D is fat-soluble you won’t likely get the full impact when you gulp it down in fat-free orange juice or skim milk.

To infuse your diet with vitamin D, it’s a good idea to cast your line for fatty fish more often. Swimmers like sardines, mackerel, herring and salmon are among the best dietary sources of this must-have nutrient. For instance, 3 ounces of canned sardines can provide 70% of the daily vitamin D quota. The same serving size of canned sockeye salmon gives you about the amount of vitamin D – 600 I.U. – that the Institute of Medicine suggests we should aim for each day. Even better, the natural fats present in these seafood species will work to bolster vitamin D absorption in the body. With that said, few Americans are eating enough vitamin D rich fish as they continue to favor other proteins like chicken and beef.

Consider a supplement: For many people, daily supplementation is one of the most reliable ways to achieve optimal vitamin D levels. Since a majority of multi-vitamins contain no more than 600 IU, a dedicated vitamin D supplement might be needed to prevent or overcome a deficiency.  It’s best to consult with your physician about the need for a vitamin D supplement and appropriate dosage.  He or she may order a blood vitamin D test to better assess your status.

If you do pop a vitamin D pill, check the form you’re getting. Researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is about twice as effective at raising blood levels than is vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol). A separate study showed that after supplementation is halted, there is a less rapid decline in vitamin D levels when D3 is taken than when D2 is the supplement of choice. And because vitamin D is fat-soluble, you’ll want to take a supplement with a meal containing some fat for better absorption.

Don’t go overboard: Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the prevalence of daily supplemental vitamin D usage in excess of 4,000 I.U., the amount that the Institute of Medicine says should be our upper daily upper limit, has been rising in recent years. As a fat-soluble nutrient, if you take too much vitamin D for too long it can accumulate in our bodies which could raise the risk for health concerns such as the calcification of blood vessels that may lead to heart, liver and other organ damage. For most people, daily supplementation of 1,000 to 2,000 IU should suffice, but discuss this with your physician.

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