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The Role of Vitamin D in Your Health

What is vitamin D and why is it needed?

Vitamin D is one of many nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy. Among the vitamin’s main functions:

  • Help the body absorb calcium. Vitamin D, in tandem with calcium, helps build bones and keep bones strong and healthy.
  • Help block the release of a specific hormone (parathyroid hormone). This hormone reabsorbs bone tissue, which makes bones thin and brittle.

Vitamin D may also play a role in muscle function and the immune system. The immune system is your body’s defense system. It helps protect it against infections and other illnesses. Daily vitamin D supplementation has been shown to decrease the risk of falling in older individuals.

Other ways vitamin D is thought to help us and how much we would need to take is an area of active research (and controversy). There have been studies to suggest that it might help prevent colon, prostate, and breast cancers. There is also some research that it might help prevent and treat diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and multiple sclerosis. However, the results of many of these studies are either preliminary or under debate. Without other long-term research, even many of the researches who conducted these initial studies are cautious about recommending vitamin D for the prevention of these diseases.

What are the sources of vitamin D?

You can get vitamin D through sun exposure, your diet and supplements.

Sun exposure

Vitamin D is produced when your skin is exposed to sunshine. The amount of vitamin D that your skin makes depends on such factors as the season (ie, there’s usually less sunshine in winter months), the time of day (the sun’s rays are most powerful between 10 am and 3 pm), the amount of cloud cover and air pollution, and where you live (cities near the equator have higher UV levels). It’s the UV (ultra-violet) light in sunlight that causes your skin to make vitamin D.

Food sources

The best way to get enough vitamin D every day is to eat a variety of healthy foods from all food groups. The vitamin content of various foods is shown in the table.

Vitamin D Content of Various Foods
Food IUs per serving*
Cod liver oil, 1 tablespoon 1360
Swordfish, cooked, 3 ounces 566
Salmon (sockeye) cooked, 3 ounces 477
Tuna, canned in water, drained, 3 ounces 154
Orange juice fortified with vitamin D, 1 cup 137
Milk, vitamin fortified, 1 cup 115-124
Yogurt, fortified with 20% of the daily value of vitamin D, 6 ounces 80
Margarine, fortified, 1 tablespoon 60
Sardines, canned in oil, drained, 2 sardines 46
Liver, beef, cooked, 3 ounces 42
Egg yolk, 1 large 41
cereal, fortified with 10% of the daily value of vitamin D, 1 cup 40
Cheese, Swiss, 1 ounce 6
*IUs = International Units.
Source: Vitamin D. Health Professionals. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. June 24, 2011

It is important to check product labels, as the amount of added vitamin D varies when artificially added to products such as orange juice, yogurt, and margarine.

Supplements

Since there is a limited number of foods that contain vitamin D, getting enough vitamin D from your diet alone is difficult. While sun exposure does produce vitamin D, too much exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer. Therefore, the addition of vitamin D supplements may be needed.

How much vitamin D is needed?

In healthy individuals, the amount of vitamin D needed per day is shown in the chart (according to the Institute of Medicine). It is important to know that these are general recommendations. If your doctor is checking your blood levels, he or she might recommend higher or lower doses based on your individual needs. According to the American Academy of Clinical Endocrinologists, it may be appropriate to do a blood test of vitamin D in many patients with osteoporosis. The amount of vitamin D supplement can be individualized based on the results. For most older patients, a vitamin D supplement of 2000 IU daily, which can be obtained without a prescription, should be both safe and beneficial.

Daily Recommended Vitamin D Intake
  Recommended Dietary Allowance (IU/day) Upper Level Intake (IU/day)
Infants 0 - 6 months 400 1,000
Infants 6 - 12 months 400 1,500
1 - 3 years old 600 2,500
4 - 8 years old 600 3,000
9 - 70 years old 600 4,000
over 70 years old 800 4,000
14 - 50 years old, pregnant/lactating 600 4,000
Source: Institute of Medicine, released 11/30/2010

Are there medical conditions that can cause Vitamin D deficiency?

Yes. Vitamin D deficiency can be caused by specific medical conditions such as:

  • Kidney and liver diseases. These diseases reduce the amount of an enzyme needed to change vitamin D to a form that is used in body. Lack of this enzyme leads to an inadequate level of vitamin D in the body.
  • Cystic fibrosis, crohn’s disease and celiac disease. These diseases do not allow the intestines to absorb enough vitamin D.
  • Gastric bypass surgery. This weight-loss surgery removes part of the stomach and/or the intestines. Reducing the size of these organs lowers the amount of vitamin D-containing nutrients that can be absorbed.
  • Obesity. A body mass index greater than 30 is associated with lower vitamin D levels. It is thought that the fat actually holds onto the vitamin D, and does not allow it to be released into the blood stream.

Other factors that can lead to Vitamin D deficiency (shortage):

  • Age. The skin’s ability to make vitamin D decreases with age.
  • Mobility. People who are homebound or are rarely outside (eg, in nursing homes and other facilities) are not able to use sun exposure as a source of vitamin D.
  • Skin color. Dark-colored skin is less able to make vitamin D than fair-colored skin.
  • Human breast milk. A woman’s breast milk only contains a small amount of vitamin D. Infant formulas do too. Therefore infants, particularly those who are breastfed exclusively, are at risk for not receiving enough vitamin D.

Are there medications that can cause Vitamin D deficiency?

Yes. Vitamin D levels can be lowered by certain medications. These include: laxatives, steroids (eg, prednisone), cholesterol-lowering drugs (eg, cholestyramine and colestipol), seizure control drugs (eg, phenobarbital and phenytoin), a tuberculosis drug (rifampin) and a weight-loss drug (orlistat).

Always tell your doctor about the drugs you take and any vitamin D supplements or other supplements or herbs/alternative health products that you take.

How often do I need to get my vitamin D level checked?

Routine checks of vitamin D levels are not currently recommended. However, your doctor might need to check your levels if you have medical conditions, risk factors for vitamin D deficiency or are taking certain medications as already discussed. Sometimes vitamin D levels can be checked as a cause of symptoms such as long-lasting body aches and a history of falls or bone fractures without significant trauma.

What health problems can occur if a person doesn’t get enough vitamin D?

Severely low levels of vitamin D can result in a disease called osteomalacia in adults, and rickets in children. If left untreated, both conditions lead to soft, brittle bones, bone pain, and muscle pain and weakness. Osteoporosis is associated with reduced bone density, which leads to an increased risk of falls and bone fractures.

Can a person ever have too much vitamin D?

Yes. See the table, “Daily Recommended Vitamin D Intake.” This table lists the upper limits for vitamin D levels by age.

Symptoms of getting too much vitamin D include nausea, vomiting, itching, increased thirst and urination, poor appetite, constipation, weakness, weight loss, confusion, heart rhythm problems, kidney damage and possibly even pancreatic cancer. Do not take higher than recommended doses of vitamin D without first discussing it with your doctor. However, your doctor might recommend higher doses of vitamin D if he or she is checking your blood levels and adjusting your dose accordingly.

How is vitamin D deficiency treated and how can it be prevented?

The goals of treatment and prevention are the same -- to reach, and then maintain, an adequate level of vitamin D in the body. A combination of methods is used to do this, including:

Eating more foods that contain vitamin D. See vitamin D food sources table included in this article. Keep in mind that foods alone usually don’t meet the daily recommended levels of vitamin D.

Getting some exposure to sunshine -- but not TOO much. Exactly how much sun exposure is needed is not clear. Five to 15 minutes of sun exposure two to three times a week to the face, arms, legs, or back may be all that is needed to absorb a suitable amount of vitamin D. Older patients, those with darker skin color, and those living in northern climates might need more sun exposure (especially in early spring and late fall). The use of sunscreen, and standing behind a window prevents vitamin D from being produced in the skin.

However, know that too must sunshine increases the risk of skin cancer and ages the skin. The American Academy of Dermatology advises that when in the sun, use a sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30.

Using vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D comes in two forms. D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol). Studies have shown that these two forms are equally good for bone health. Work with your doctor to determine if you need to take a vitamin supplement and, if so, how much to take. It is important to discuss how much vitamin D you are taking with your doctor, especially if you are taking more than what is listed in the chart above. Though higher doses are often safely used, too much vitamin D can build up in the body if used incorrectly.

References

© Copyright 1995-2012 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 6/26/2012…#15050