An estimated 1 billion people throughout the world are deficient in vitamin D, a fat-soluble nutrient that helps your body absorb and regulate calcium and phosphorus, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. While chronic vitamin D deficiency is known primarily for its bone-weakening effects, it’s also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, multiple sclerosis and certain cancers. The first step toward treatment is a proper diagnosis. If you suspect you have a vitamin D deficiency, talk to your doctor.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Although a mild vitamin D deficiency doesn’t always trigger noticeable symptoms, the most commonly reported symptoms in more-established cases are weak and achy muscles. Severe deficiency -- which is the primary cause of soft bones, or osteomalacia, in adults, and bone malformation, or rickets, in children -- can also cause bone pain.
Blood tests are used to determine vitamin D levels. One of the most common screening tools is the serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D test, which measures the concentration of vitamin D in your bloodstream. If it's below a certain threshold, you are considered deficient in vitamin D.
The usual course of treatment for vitamin D deficiency is to increase your intake. While you can do this through your diet, it's more effective to take a vitamin D supplement recommended by your doctor.
Vitamin D supplements are available as vitamin D-2, or pre-vitamin D, and vitamin D-3, which is chemically the same as the form your body produces from sunlight. Vitamin D comes in pill, gel capsule and liquid form, and it's also available in multivitamins.
Your specific treatment dosage depends on your vitamin D levels, health condition and age. Talk to your doctor about a dosage schedule that meets your needs.
Your doctor may advise you to boost your intake of vitamin D further by including in your diet the relatively few foods that contain the nutrient. It occurs naturally in fatty fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon -- a 3-ounce serving of canned salmon has just under 12 micrograms of vitamin D, or about 465 international units.
Other foods are fortified with the vitamin. Milk and orange juice that have been fortified with vitamin D each provide about 100 international units per 8-ounce glass, while a 1-cup serving of breakfast cereal fortified with the vitamin typically supplies right around half that amount. Yogurt, fruit juice, instant oatmeal and bread are sometimes fortified as well, but the amount of vitamin D in these products is highly variable.
Your body makes vitamin D when ultraviolet light hits your skin, so spending time in the sun is a simple, reliable way to increase your vitamin D levels. It takes just six days of casual sun exposure, without sunscreen, to compensate for 49 days without exposure to sunlight, according to MedlinePlus.
Your physician may not recommend sun exposure as part of your treatment, however. Not only can it increase your risk of skin cancer, but some of the very people who are at greatest risk of vitamin D deficiency -- including those who are older or overweight, as well as those who have darker skin tones or who live in northern climates -- may have trouble getting enough vitamin D from sun exposure alone.
Ask your doctor whether time in the sun should be part of your regimen.
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Vitamin D and Health
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin D
- Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University: Vitamin D
- MedlinePlus: Vitamin D
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Vitamin D Deficiency in Adults - When to Test and How to Treat
- Hormone Health Network: Vitamin D Deficiency - A Patient’s Guide
- Photo Credit woolzian/iStock/Getty Images
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