Most people get the necessary amount of vitamin D from sun exposure and the foods they eat, but a growing number of consumers turn to supplemental vitamin D for a number of reasons. Whether at the suggestion of a medical professional or just to make sure they get the daily requirement, health conscious people search the store shelves for a reliable form of supplemental vitamin D.
But how does one know how much to take, when to take it, and whether it’s needed at all? Further, what about the differences between vitamin D2 and D3, the most commonly available supplements? And what are the effects of having a temporarily low level in the blood? Those questions and many more are on the minds of anyone who has ever suffered mood imbalances, low energy, insomnia or a host of other symptoms that can appear when not enough vitamin D is in the bloodstream.
Here are some key facts that everyone should know about vitamin D supplements:
- Since D is the only vitamin our bodies can manufacture from typical sunlight, many of us don’t get enough of it, especially people who live in northern regions that have lots of overcast days. Supplementation is often the only way for some people to get the proper amount of vitamin D into their systems.
- A lack of vitamin D can lead to brain, heart, immune system and bone problems, as well as asthma. While cancer and other diseases have been linked with low vitamin D levels, the most common medical maladies that result from lack of D are brittle bones and many kinds of infections (like the flu).
- Some studies have shown that vitamin D which results from daily sun exposure of about 20 minutes can decrease the risk of some types of breast cancer. The type of vitamin D that results from sun exposure and that comes from natural food sources is called D3. Note that many supplements offer only an inferior type of D called D2. Most supplement containers will note whether they contain D2 or D3. In most every case, consumers who purchase supplemental forms of vitamin D should opt for the D3 form, as it most closely mimics the kind that the body produces naturally.
- Light-skinned people who have a very real fear of acquiring skin cancer sometimes avoid the sun, and for good reason. Skin cancer is serious business and can lead to fatal consequences if not treated quickly and properly. However, a moderate amount of sun exposure is usually quite a healthy thing, so unless a doctor instructs otherwise, the huge majority of people will do well to get a little bit of sunlight every day. It is always wise to avoid the dangerous rays that are more prevalent during the “high sun” times of the day. That’s why so many people opt to get their daily sun exposure either very early or very late in the day.
- Some studies suggest that the proper amount of vitamin D, whether from natural sunlight and diet or from supplements, can help stave off heart disease, strokes and high blood pressure. As well, a lack of vitamin D has been shown to be linked to autism in children, dementia in older adults, premature death, and even multiple sclerosis.
- There are not very many foods that contain vitamin D, and in fact most commercial milk is fortified with it, rather than containing it as a natural component. Tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines, egg yolks and raw milk do contain decent amounts of vitamin D, but the supplement market has been booming in the last decade because so many people want to make certain they get enough vitamin D.
- The rise of vegan and vegetarian eating has caused a surge in the popularity of vitamin D supplements. Vegans and vegetarians often consume no fish products or dairy, which can lead to a host of vitamin deficiencies, not just for vitamin D. Typical symptoms of low levels, in adults, are bone pain and significant weakness in the muscles. Anyone with those symptoms should seek medical help.
- A lack of vitamin D is bad enough, but what happens when people get too much? First of all, it is impossible to get too much vitamin D from sun exposure. The body regulates that pathway quite well. But, anyone who ingests more than about 4,000 International Units per day can be at risk of an overdose. The typical signs are vomiting, nausea, confusion, constipation, weakness and disorientation. It’s always a good idea to keep a close eye on the amount of supplements one takes, whether vitamin D or anything else!
- Most medical professionals tell their patients to get most of their vitamin D from foods and sun exposure. But individuals who are unable to access adequate sunlight, or who cannot eat foods rich in vitamin D (for whatever reasons) often consider supplementation.
- Supplemental forms of vitamin D exist in fortified foods and drinks, like fortified milk. Other supplements are available in capsules and other forms. Always keep track of how much vitamin D you consume and whether it is of the D2 or D3 type.
- When buying supplements, be careful not to take more than about 1,000 IUs per day until you’ve had your D level tested to see how much you need. Tablets are problematic because they may not dissolve completely in the human stomach, so try to buy gel caps or capsules when possible. Also, when purchasing vitamin D supplements, try to use a brand that offers third-party certification, specifically USD. That way, you’ll know you’re getting the amount of the vitamin as stated on the label.
While most of us get plenty of vitamin D from the sun and from eating things like salmon, tuna, eggs and sardines, it is wise to get an occasional blood test to see where your vitamin D level stands. If it’s too low, speak with a doctor about how to increase it and about whether supplementation might be appropriate.