It’s no secret that vitamin D has many benefits. Why else would a healthy dose of sunshine make us feel so good? But these days, vitamin D seems to get credit for everything. Weight loss. Disease prevention. It’s even been thought to ward off depression. But does it deserve such accolades? The answer is yes and no.
As a fat-soluble vitamin, D has been proven to help build and maintain healthy bones. It prevents bone disease and contributes to the body’s absorption of calcium and phosphorus. It’s also possible that it helps to regulate many other functions of the immune system, cardiovascular system and even a couple of cancers — but the studies are not conclusive.
Losing weight and getting happy
So how about those trendier theories? “Many people think vitamin D helps with weight loss,” says Dr. Yarbrough. “But that’s not the case. People who are obese tend to have low D levels due to storage of fat tissue, but it hasn’t been proven to help shed the pounds.”
In terms of depression, studies have shown low levels of vitamin D in depressed patients. But other studies show no improvement when patients received supplements. “It could just be that people who are depressed are less likely to get adequate sun exposure,” says Dr. Yarbrough.
What has been proven, is the adverse effects of too much vitamin D. Those who flood their bodies with supplements are at risk of pancreatic cancer or kidney stones. And if the calcium levels from vitamin D elevate too high, people can experience symptoms such as confusion, extreme thirst, loss of appetite and weakness. “This is dangerous,” says Dr. Yarbrough, “and would require immediate medical attention.”
Making vitamin D work for you
As with most things, getting the most out of vitamin D means finding balance. It’s recommended that children get 400 IU, adults get 600 IU and those over 70 years of age get 800 IU daily. This means drinking milk, eating plenty of fatty fish and choosing cereals and other foods that are fortified. This, combined with 20–30 minutes of sunlight each day, will help strengthen your bones and ensure you’re getting the D you need.
“Unless you’re deficient or at high risk for deficiency, you shouldn’t need to take supplements,” says Dr. Yarbrough. “Eating right and getting out into the sun is enough. That being said, breast-fed babies should be supplemented (breastmilk does not contain vitamin D) and high-risk groups should be aware of possible deficiencies.”
These high-risk groups include:
- The elderly
- Those with inflammatory bowel or other malabsorptive disorders
- Bariatric surgery patients
- Those confined inside or covered up for religious purposes
- Those with dark skin
- Patients on chronic steroids or phenytoin
Hyped or not, vitamin D is still a remarkable thing. With stronger bones we stay active longer and age more gracefully. And while it may not make us slimmer, smarter or happier, there’s nothing a bit of sunshine can’t cure.