When it comes to maintaining various systems of your body, consider vitamin D your sun-soaked secret weapon — the nutrient has a stacked resume and is found in cells throughout your body.
First, it’s essential for bone health. Without vitamin D, your body can’t process the calcium you get from food to build strong bones. Second, it’s a key player in maintaining your muscles and nerves. Not only does vitamin D help your muscles move, it’s part of the vehicle that gets signals from your nerves to your brain and back again. And finally, vitamin D is an immune system warrior, helping you fend off the flu and even, as some research suggests, certain types of cancer.
Most of us get our daily dose of vitamin D from the sun (adults need about 600 IU per day, according to the National Institutes of Health), but as daylight hours diminish, your risk of developing a D deficiency creeps up. If you become vitamin D-deficient, you risk developing osteomalacia (the softening of bones) and muscle weakness. D deficiency could also compromise your immune function.
To keep your health goals on track and your body performing at its peak, it’s important to get enough of the nutrient. Aside from soaking up vitamin D-packed rays, there are two main ways to get your daily dose: noshing on vitamin D-dense foods or selecting the right supplement.
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If your time in the sun is on the lower end of the spectrum, you can boost your levels of vitamin D through your diet, with natural sources and fortified foods.
NATURAL SOURCES OF VITAMIN D
The best source of vitamin D is seafood — specifically fatty fishes like salmon, tuna and mackerel, according to the NIH. Make sure to look for wild-caught (rather than farmed) fish. According to a study from the Boston University Medical Center, farmed salmon has approximately 75 percent less vitamin D than the wild caught version. You can also get a dose of D from other food sources — including egg yolks, cheese, beef liver and mushrooms exposed to UV light — though in much smaller amounts.
FOODS FORTIFIED WITH VITAMIN D
Because there aren’t a ton of D-dense foods in the average diet, a lot of foods that end up on U.S. shelves are fortified with the vitamin. The top fortified dietary source is dairy milk, and in the U.S., it’s fortified to help boost your intake. A quart contains about 400 IU. Vitamin D is also added to a lot of other breakfast foods — think boxed cereals, orange juice and yogurt. Even some soy products are fortified. Just make sure to check the nutrition labels on each product.
DOSING VITAMIN D
Unless you’re eating salmon at every meal and washing it down with milk (maybe not the best idea) you may still need an extra boost of vitamin D. Here’s where supplements come in. While not quite a miracle pill, taking a vitamin D supplement comes pretty close.
In pill form, vitamin D comes in two versions, D2 and D3. Both versions increase your blood levels of the vitamin, but D3 is the more natural version and is more readily absorbed and used by the body. Whether you’re looking for a vitamin D-dense multivitamin or a solo supplement, check the labels and make sure the recommended daily dose contains enough to meet your recommended 600 IU per day.
One word of caution: You can get too much vitamin D, which can cause everything from nausea to kidney damage. The NIH recommends capping your daily intake at 4,000 IU, so make sure you understand your daily doses and the amount you’re already consuming before using a supplement.
Written by Macaela Mackenzie, a writer based in New York City with a passion for all things active. When she’s not writing about the weirdest fitness trends or nutrition news, you can find her conquering her fear of heights at the rock climbing gym, hitting the pavement in Central Park or trying to become a yogi. To see Macaela’s latest work, visit macaelamackenzie.com.