Our bodies need vitamin D to absorb calcium, the major building block of bone. It boosts the body's ability to absorb calcium by up to 80%. Vitamin D becomes especially important as we get older, when calcium is less efficiently absorbed. Together, calcium and vitamin D can prevent osteoporosis, a condition where bones become thin and brittle and break easily.
Vitamin D is often called "the sunshine vitamin," since our bodies can actually produce it for ourselves when exposed to sunlight. In the summer, having our arms, face, and hands out in the sun for just 10 to 15 minutes a day, 3 times per week, can make enough vitamin D to meet the body's requirements. People who have darker skin tones will need to spend a bit more time in the sun to meet their vitamin D requirements.
Unfortunately, the sun may not be the safest or most reliable way to get enough of this vitamin. Using sunscreens to prevent skin cancer blocks the rays needed to produce vitamin D. People with darker skin tones have more melanin in their skin than those with lighter skin tones. This means that they absorb less sunlight, putting them at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Also, many people, especially the elderly, are at risk, as they spend more time indoors. Finally, the long, cold, and dark Canadian winters mean that the skin's vitamin D production shuts down from early October until late March every year.
So how can we get enough vitamin D – and just how much do we need? Infants under 1 year of age should get 400 IU (international units) per day. Children over 1 year of age and adults under 70 (who do not have osteoporosis) need around 600 IU per day. Adults over 70 should get at least 800 IU daily. Some doctors may recommend higher amounts per day for certain individuals.
In Canada, a glass of milk (250 mL) is enriched with 100 IU of vitamin D, making it a good source of this nutrient. Small amounts of vitamin D are in margarine, eggs, chicken liver, salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, swordfish, and fish liver oil. It may be hard to get enough vitamin D from food alone, so you may opt to take a supplement. Remember that most multivitamins contain 400 IU of vitamin D, which is enough for most people. It might seem that higher doses may be better, but too much vitamin D can lead to loss of calcium from bone, too much calcium in the blood, and kidney problems.
It's especially important that babies and children get enough vitamin D. Kids who are short on this vitamin can get rickets, a disease affecting bone development. Infant formulas are already fortified with vitamin D, so bottle-fed babies don't need supplements. Breast-fed babies, on the other hand, may need a vitamin D supplement since breast milk is usually low in vitamin D. Breast milk is still a great food for babies, so it’s recommended that anyone breast-feeding talk to their doctor about whether their baby needs extra vitamin D.
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