Vitamin check: have you been outside yet today? If the answer is no, consider taking this post with you to read from your front porch, your balcony, or the sidewalk in front of your office.
You probably already know vitamin D as “the sunshine vitamin.” Maybe you even know that vitamin D supports healthy bones and teeth, or that it plays a role in building a strong immune system. If you deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), you’ve likely heard that vitamin D deficiency is correlated with depression.
So in the limited daylight hours of winter, how are you supposed to get enough vitamin D? Should you take a vitamin D supplement, or change your diet? Here’s a look at the benefits of vitamin D and how to get more vitamin D in the darker winter months.
The benefits of vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat soluble steroid that does a ton for your health. Vitamin D is important for strong bones and teeth, since it helps regulate calcium. It also supports immune, brain, and nervous system health, while reducing inflammation. Finally, vitamin D regulates cell proliferation (the process by which a cell grows and divides) and the functions of over 200 genes. So, safe to say it’s pretty important for your health.
How much vitamin D do you need?
According to recent studies, upwards of 40% of the U.S. population may be vitamin D deficient, So, how much vitamin D do you need to pass that threshold?
The answer: it depends. Most labs want you to have your vitamin D levels at over 30 nmol/L, but we find that being above 50 helps our patients optimize their health the most. There’s even some evidence that athletes benefit from levels in the 80-100 range.
How can you increase your vitamin D in winter?
Of course, the classic way to get vitamin D is simple: get out in the sunshine. A New York Times article estimated that ten minutes a day of exposure to around 10% of your body’s surface area is enough to give you the vitamin D you need (assuming you’re in a temperate climate at midday).
But in the winter, that’s not as easy as it seems—especially once you consider how bundled up you get in cold weather, and how low the sun hangs in the sky. So, what else can you do to increase vitamin D?
Increase vitamin D in your diet. The recommended daily amount (RDA) of vitamin D per day that should come from your diet is 600 IU for most adults. Some good sources of vitamin D: salmon, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified foods (like fortified milk).
Use a “happy lamp.” These devices, also known as light boxes or sun lamps, mimic the sun to stimulate vitamin D production. They’re not suitable for everyone though, so talk with your doctor before buying one.
Optimize your time outdoors. Try to get into the sun first thing in the morning to boost your vitamin D levels right when you wake up. Bonus: this also has the effect of helping you regulate your circadian rhythm. That’s because vitamin D is involved in the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our circadian rhythm and sleep.
What about vitamin D supplements?
With all that said, would the easiest solution just be to pop a vitamin D supplement every day? Probably… but maybe not. We could practice “epidemiology medicine” and tell you to take the supplement because most people would benefit.
However, to practice precisely, we’ll look at your genetics and your actual blood levels. That information will allow us to tell you exactly what to do in order to get to that optimal vitamin D level.
If you’re interested in learning more about Vitamin D prior to talking about whether or not you need it, check out our podcast episode on Vitamin D (30 min).