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Getting enough of the “sunshine vitamin” has many perks. Most of us know that vitamin D is essential for building and strengthening our bones, but the health benefits of vitamin D don’t stop there.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin stored within the liver and other fatty tissues for use when the body needs it. Found in some foods and produced by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight, vitamin D is a key player in the absorption and retention of essential nutrients – calcium, magnesium and phosphate. Without sufficient vitamin D, the body would only absorb 10 to 15% of dietary calcium consumed through foods (Harvard Health, 2007). The most important compounds are vitamins D2 and D3.

Strong Teeth and Bones

High levels of calcium and vitamin D play an essential role in the health of our bones and oral health. Our bodies need it to better absorb calcium, which strengthens bones and can help prevent osteoporosis. Inadequate calcium intake can lead to joint pain with early-onset osteoarthritis and tooth loss. Vitamin D deficiency is recognized as a major cause of bone disease in the elderly. Studies show when the body has ample vitamin D, it can reduce the risk of cavities, tooth decay and gum disease.

Immune System Support

One of the significant health benefits of vitamin D is its ability to fight illness and infection. Studies show that those with higher amounts of vitamin D are less likely to catch colds or develop flu symptoms. Vitamin D stimulates T cells, which help promote a proper response to infectious pathogens that cause illnesses. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a 42% decrease in the incidence of influenza in school-aged children among those taking a supplemental dose of 20 mcg (1200 IU) of vitamin D.

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Also, in a meta-analysis published in The British Medical Journal of 25 randomized clinical trials totaling 11,321 participants, vitamin D supplementation was found safe and protected against acute respiratory tract infection overall. There is also evidence that it helps reduce the severity and duration of COVID-19 and can also aid in the prevention of autoimmune diseases.

(Bonus: Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH,  Founder and Chairman of Cooper Aerobics, shares nine tips for improving immune health.)

Anti-inflammatory Effect

Studies have shown vitamin D may help chronic inflammation by playing a role in regulating the body’s inflammatory response, especially against autoimmune diseases. A recent observation from a controlled trial reported that adults who took 50 mcg (2000 IU) of vitamin D3 daily for up to five years reduced their risk of all autoimmune disorders by 22% compared to the group that did not.

Studies also show that those who have higher amounts of vitamin D in their diet have a decreased risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease where the immune system attacks the central nervous system.

Potential to Fight Against Multiple Diseases

Research suggests the health benefits of vitamin D may be associated with fighting many diseases and could play a role in:

  • Lessening the chance of heart disease. Vitamin D can help keep your heart and blood vessels healthy. Low vitamin D levels are linked to hypertension, stroke and heart failure.
  • Defending against diabetes. Many people with diabetes exhibit low levels of vitamin D. The nutrient deficiency is associated with decreased insulin release, which means vitamin D could slow down the progression for those who already have diabetes. In some studies, research shows it may also help lower average blood sugar levels in those with type 2 diabetes.
  • Preventing the potential for cancer and lowering mortality. Some studies have found a link between low vitamin D levels and a higher risk for cancer. The earliest study was conducted by the Garland brothers in the 1990s. They related latitude and colon cancer and then did a prospective study on vitamin D status and the risk of colon cancer. Their conclusion: the further you live from the equator, the higher your risk for colorectal cancer. They concluded taking 1000 units of vitamin D a day could potentially reduce your risk of colon cancer by as much as 50%. (Bonus: Nina Radford, MD shares key takeaways regarding vitamin D and cancer prevention.)

There is ongoing research surrounding vitamin D and breast cancer and prostate cancer. A study of more than 7,800 participants found that the results from seven eligible studies indicated higher vitamin D level was significantly associated with decreased all-cause mortality and prostate cancer-specific mortality. In addition, a 2019 meta-analysis found that vitamin D significantly reduced the total cancer mortality rate.

Potential Weight Loss Aid

An increase of vitamin D in the diet may help shed pounds. In one study, people with obesity who took vitamin D supplements, along with following a weight-loss diet plan, lost more weight and fat mass than those who only followed the diet plan.

An article (Vitamin D Deficiency: Consequence or Cause of Obesity?) published in 2019 notes that while vitamin D deficiency isn’t a cause of obesity, there is a strong link between the two, theorizing that excess fat, liver and muscle mass may halt the absorption of the nutrient.

Mood Booster and Depression Fighter

High amounts of vitamin D, especially from sunlight, are shown to help regulate mood and reduce the risk of depression. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials revealed that those experiencing negative emotions who took vitamin D supplements saw an improvement in symptoms. Another study involving 593 patients concluded low vitamin D levels were a risk factor for fibromyalgia, anxiety and depression.

(Bonus: Read about the nine supplements that may relieve symptoms of depression.)

Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?

Vitamin D deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. Lower vitamin D levels are a result of many factors, including:

  • Sun avoidance
  • Using sun protection (though it is necessary to protect your skin during prolonged time outdoors)
  • Skin pigmentation
  • Poor dietary and supplement intake
  • Malabsorption syndromes
  • Obesity
  • Medication use

To reap the benefits of vitamin D, it is imperative your body is getting enough. Using a simple blood test to determine your current level, your physician can recommend a specific daily dose. Cooper Clinic physicians recommend a 25 hydroxyvitamin D level of 40 ng/ml, but some doctors prefer to see lab values over 50 ng/ml.

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How Do You Get More of the Sunshine Vitamin?

Whether it’s through foods, sunlight or supplements, it is important your body gets adequate vitamin D. Here’s how:

Sunlight: Your body produces vitamin D when the sun shines directly onto your skin. Experts say spending just 10-15 minutes outside in the middle of the day without sunscreen each day can provide your body with vitamin D. The nutrient is then stored and released when sunlight is not available.

Foods: Few foods naturally contain vitamin D, so it can be tough to get enough. Here are some food options that can help increase your intake:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel (they’re the best source of vitamin D!)
  • Beef liver
  • Cheese
  • Egg yolks
  • Mushrooms
  • Fortified milk
  • Fortified breakfast cereal
  • Some orange juice, yogurt and drinks with soy are fortified

Supplements: It can be difficult to get enough vitamin D through sunlight and food. And, as we age our bodies naturally as we age. But supplementation can help to ensure you’re getting the health benefits of vitamin D.

Vitamin D supplements can be used to help treat deficiency. The preventive medicine physicians of Cooper Clinic recommend a baseline supplementation of 50 mcg (2000 IU) of vitamin D3 taken daily with food. Cooper Complete tableted multivitamins contain 50 mcg (2000 IU) of vitamin D. Additionally, Cooper Complete offers a stand-alone D3 of 25 mcg (1000 IU) and 125 mcg (5000 IU).

Your physician understands your current health profile best. Before adding any new nutritional supplement to your diet, consult your physician.

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