We talk about taking vitamin C when we get sick and vitamin B12 when we need an extra spring in our step. But the powerhouse vitamin that we all need, especially when we get older, is vitamin D. Vitamin D is actually a catch-all term for a group of fat-soluble hormones that are naturally present in a few foods, added to others, and available as a dietary supplement. It is also produced when ultraviolet (UV) rays from sunlight strike the skin. It’s something that our bodies need, and in our indoor-based world, something we don’t get enough of.
Want to learn more? Here are five facts about vitamin D that every senior should know.
1. Vitamin D Can Keep You Healthy
Vitamin D plays many roles in the body. First and foremost, it helps the body absorb and use calcium, which it needs for bone, tooth and skin health. It serves as an anti-inflammatory, protecting and promoting cell growth and reducing the buildup of harmful plaque in the body. It also has been shown to strengthen immune function and enable muscle growth. Here are a number of ways vitamin D improves health:
- Immune response: Besides fending off life-threatening and chronic diseases, vitamin D can help boost seniors’ immune system to defeat more everyday illnesses, like colds, the flu and other respiratory conditions.
- Cancer: Due to its ability to boost the immune system, vitamin D can help decrease the risk of colon and blood cancers.
- Bone health: Vitamin D helps reduce osteoporosis, which leads to soft or brittle bones.
- Skin health: Vitamin D can help treat plaque-like psoriasis in some seniors.
- Oral health: Often, aging makes dental care more difficult to manage. While getting older brings an increased likelihood of gum disease and tooth decay, vitamin D provides a strong defense by helping the body absorb the calcium it needs to keep gums and teeth healthy.
2. Vitamin D Can Make You Happy
Vitamin D helps activate and deactivate enzymes in the brain, making it essential for good brain health. A lack of vitamin D can lead to depression (including seasonal affective disorder (SAD)) and sleeplessness. Lower vitamin D levels have also been associated with brain-related disorders like Parkinson’s disease, dementia and multiple sclerosis.
3. You Don’t Need a Lot of Vitamin D
If you’re wondering about the right dosage or worried about overdoing it on vitamin D, don’t stress about it. You don’t need a lot of vitamin D to reap the health benefits. The recommended daily dosage for adults age 50 and up is 600 International Units (IU), though that standard is being phased out in favor of micrograms (mcg). To convert, one microgram = 40 IU. So, 600 IU would be 15 mcg. When you get older, the recommended dose of vitamin D for elderly adults may be increased to 800 IU/20 mcg.
You also don’t have to worry about taking too much vitamin D. While taking significant overdoses of vitamin D can have adverse health effects over time, overuse of vitamin D involves daily doses exceeding 40,000 IU/1,000 mcg. Your body probably needs more right now, not less.
4. Some Medicines Can Lower Your Vitamin D Levels
Some medicines, including over-the-counter medicines, can lower vitamin D levels. Those include laxatives, steroids, medicines that lower cholesterol, seizure medications and weight-loss drugs. Talk to your doctor about your vitamin D needs if you are taking one of these medicines.
5. Vitamin D Is Found in Natural Sources
Before you visit the supplements store or your local pharmacy, explore natural ways to get the vitamin D your body needs:
- Sunlight: Our bodies make vitamin D when skin is directly exposed to sunlight. A 10- to 30-minute walk outdoors with forearms, lower legs and face uncovered will help your body naturally produce vitamin D. But remember that the skin’s ability to make vitamin D lessens with age. Also, take care to protect your skin from burning and from sun exposure longer than 30 minutes.
- Fish and fish oil: Three ounces of cooked salmon can provide more than 80 percent of daily necessary vitamin D, and one tablespoon of cod liver oil supplement provides 170 percent of daily vitamin D.
- Mushrooms: Four or five sliced white mushrooms make up half of your needed daily vitamin D intake.
- Milk: A cup of milk, which is fortified with vitamin D, contains 20 percent of the daily recommended vitamin D intake.
Beyond these natural sources, a doctor or dietitian may recommend a vitamin D supplement after ruling out medication interactions or other health risks.
If you are concerned about a lack of vitamin D, speak to your doctor. This is especially important if you are experiencing symptoms such as excessive fatigue, bone pain, muscle weakness, aches or cramps, or mood changes like depression.
Want to learn more about getting additional vitamin D into your diet? Talk to your doctor or nutritionist today.