It is that time of year when sunlight becomes a cherished commodity. It is dark and gloomy when I wake up and bleak and dreary when supper hits the table. I miss my sunshine. In fact, our bodies need sunshine for regulating sleep, balancing hormones and brain chemicals and creating vitamin D.
We are most familiar with vitamin D for its role in building and maintaining healthy bones. Without vitamin D calcium, the primary component of bone, cannot be absorbed by the body. Our body makes vitamin D when direct sunlight converts a chemical in your skin into an active form of the vitamin (calciferol).
Vitamin D is not found widely in food. It is available from fortified milk, fortified cereal, and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines.
As winter approaches many of us do not get enough of this important vitamin. Without bright sun and long days our access to the sun is limited. Other factors include skin pigmentation, the amount of clothing covering your skin and age. Many older adults don’t get regular exposure to sunlight and have trouble absorbing vitamin D.
For some people taking a multivitamin with vitamin D will likely help improve bone health. Ask your health care provider about your need for vitamin D supplementation. The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 400 international units (IU) for children up to age 12 months, 600 IU for ages 1 to 70 years, and 800 IU for people over 70 years.
Some research suggests that vitamin D, especially when taken with calcium, might help prevent certain cancers. It may also play a role in cognitive health. In one small study of adults age 60 years and older being treated for dementia, researchers found that taking a vitamin D supplement helped improve cognitive function. There are some inherited disorders such as familial hypophosphatemia that may be helped with supplemental vitamin D. Applying vitamin D or a topical preparation that contains a vitamin D compound called calcipotriene to the skin can treat plaque-type psoriasis in some people and research suggests that long-term vitamin D supplementation reduces the risk of multiple sclerosis.
While essential and generally considered safe taking too much vitamin D can be harmful. Children age 9 years and older, adults, and pregnant and breast-feeding women who take more than 4,000 IU a day of vitamin D might experience nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, constipation and quite serious symptoms such as weakness, weight loss, confusion, disorientation, heart rhythm problems and kidney damage. Vitamin D is very reactive with many medicines so be sure to talk to your pharmacist before mixing vitamin D supplements with any medicine. While we may decide to take supplements during the winter we may not need them in the summer when, once again, the sun shows its face!
Cathy Moore writes a regular column for the Watertown Daily Times.