Should I Be Taking Vitamin D Supplements?

I receive a lot of questions every day about over the counter medication, including vitamins and supplements. Most of those questions stem from something someone saw on television or read online. I can always tell when Dr. Oz talks about something new, because I will get a lot of similar questions during the same day. Vitamins and other supplements can be very good for you, if you need them. Let’s talk today about vitamin D supplements and why you might need one.

Vitamin D supplements are nothing new to the market. They have always been available. It is a well known fact that vitamin D is good for our bones, specifically because it allows our bodies to absorb calcium more efficiently. This is why we have vitamin D fortified milk. It is also the reason that most calcium supplements also contain vitamin D. Calcium is an essential nutrient to build strong, healthy bones.

Recently, we have seen a huge increase in prescriptions for vitamin D at the pharmacy. I think this is because we are finding out more and more about it’s benefits to our bodies. As we learn more, and test more, we realize how many people are deficient and need vitamin D supplements to increase those levels. Studies have shown that as much as 40% of all adults have low levels in their bodies.

There are many known uses for vitamin D in our bodies, and many other uses that are being studied. We already mentioned the benefits to our bones. Here are a few more benefits to having appropriate levels of vitamin D in your body:

  • reduces risk of developing cavities in your teeth
  • can reduce the frequency of falls in the elderly
  • can be used topically to treat psoriasis or to reduce the appearance of scars
  • may help to maintain a healthy immune system and prevent infections

In addition, there are many more theories that are being researched as benefits of having adequate vitamin D levels in the body. Some of these haven’t been proven yet, but there is enough evidence to support the need for further studies. These include:

  • diabetes
  • asthma
  • autoimmune disorders
  • high blood pressure
  • muscle weakness
  • cognitive function
  • cancer prevention

The more we study the benefits of vitamin D, the more we realize that most of our patients need to have their levels checked and take vitamin D supplements if needed.

Why are we vitamin D deficient?

There are several reasons why someone might be deficient in vitamin D. The main reason is a lack of exposure to sunlight. That’s right, sunlight. You see, our bodies make vitamin D on their own and the production is stimulated by absorption of sunlight. People who don’t go outside often, use a lot of sunscreen, wear long sleeves and pants, or have darker skin are usually the ones who are most likely to be deficient in vitamin D. As little as 10 minutes of sun exposure can be enough to stimulate your body to produce an adequate supply of vitamin D for the entire day.

Our awareness of the damaging effects of the sun has also contributed to a lot of people being deficient in vitamin D. We are much more cognizant now, than we were a few decades ago, that too much sun exposure can lead to skin cancer and other skin damage. We emphasize wearing sunscreen as much as possible. A lot of makeups, skin lotions, and even lip balm now have sunscreen in them. Wearing sunscreen prevents our bodies from absorbing as much sunlight, which can also cause our bodies to make less vitamin D.

What kind of vitamin D supplements should I take?

Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, which means your body will store what it doesn’t use and use it later. Most vitamins are water soluble, which means what is not used immediately is eliminated. I am not suggesting that you should “stock up” on vitamin D by spending long periods of time in the sun. The risks of skin damage are far greater than the benefit obtained by stocking up on vitamin D by being in the sun too long. Small doses of sunlight will work just fine.

If you find that you are vitamin D deficient, there are several ways to bring your levels up. The easiest way is to spend a little more time outdoors. Some of us will need more than just that. Vitamin D is included in most calcium supplements and multivitamins. It is also available over the counter by itself in strengths ranging from 400 IU (International Units) to 5,000 IU. In general, you need around 2,000 IU daily to maintain your current vitamin D levels in your body. This varies a lot based on the individual. Here is a more detailed dosing recommendation for specific conditions. Be sure to ask your doctor before starting any type of supplement.

Your doctor may also write you a prescription for a vitamin D supplement. Prescription strength is 50,000 IU. I know that sounds like a lot, but remember our bodies can store it and use is as needed. Because of that fact, the prescription strength can be taken as little as once a month and still be effective. The usual regimen for the 50,000 IU strength would be to take it once weekly for about 3 months and then be re-tested. At that point, your doctor would likely either continue with the 50,000 IU once monthly, or maybe reduce you to as little as 2,000 IU daily.

The main takeaway for you here should be that there is fair chance of you being vitamin D deficient. Talk to your doctor about it the next time you see him or her. If your bloodwork shows a deficiency, you know what to do. I do not recommend starting on vitamin D supplements, or any other supplement, without first consulting a health care professional.

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