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Supplements Best Way to Raise Vitamin D Levels


The best way to get enough vitamin D is through food, right? No, according to the latest Harvard Heart Letter, which says supplements are the best way for Americans to raise their body’s level of vitamin D, which in most cases too low right this moment.

In fact, the Harvard report notes that at least one-third of Americans and 75 percent of people who have cardiovascular disease are vitamin D deficient. To make that determination, the report states that “deficient” is defined as less than 20 nanograms of 25-hydroxyvitamin D per milliliter of blood (ng/mL); “insufficient” is from 20 to 30 ng/mL, and “sufficient” as any level greater than 30 ng/mL. The Vitamin D Council, however, states that everyone should maintain a level of 50 to 80 ng/mL, which means that according to their standards, a great many more people would be classified as being vitamin D deficient.

Vitamin D deficiency is a serious problem, as this vitamin plays a critical role in bone strength (including osteoporosis and fractures associated with falls), coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, heart failure, muscle pain, infection, some types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, depression, asthma, and memory loss.

Consumers are used to hearing that the best way to get their vitamins is through the food they eat, and in nearly every case this is true. Eating a well-balanced diet that includes nutrient-rich foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and cereals, legumes and beans, and low-fat dairy foods can meet much of your nutritional needs.

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But this scenario does not hold true for vitamin D for two reasons. One, it is difficult to get a sufficient amount of vitamin D through food alone. Only a few foods, such as salmon, fortified cereals, milk, and tuna, provide more than 100 IU per serving, and Harvard recommends people get at least eight times that amount daily. Two, the best way to get this vitamin—exposure to sunlight—is not practiced by most people enough of the time. Therefore, Harvard recommends supplementation as the best approach.

Vitamin D is called the Sunshine vitamin for good reason: the body makes vitamin D (which is really a hormone and not a vitamin at all) in a process that begins when sunlight strikes the skin. That’s when the body converts a type of cholesterol into pre-vitamin D, which they circulates throughout the body in the blood. When it reaches the liver, this organ converts it into a biologically inactive substance called 25-hydroxyvitamin D, which is the substance that is measured to identify your vitamin D level.

The final touch is provided by the kidneys, which adds an ingredient that results in active vitamin D for the body. The majority of people could get all the vitamin D they need if they exposed their skin to sun, without sunscreen, for five to ten minutes daily, depending on the time of year and the distance away from the equator. The Vitamin D Council notes that the skin produces about 10,000 IU vitamin D when it is exposed to 20 to 30 minutes of summer sun, which is 50 times more than the US government’s recommendation of 200 IU daily.

Both Harvard and the Vitamin D Council recommend that individuals have their vitamin D levels checked to determine their level. A physician can order a vitamin D test or tests can be ordered online that consumers can do at home and submit for their results. When it comes to taking vitamin D supplements, recommendations from Harvard are for 800 to 1,000 IU daily, while the Vitamin D Council recommends 5,000 IU daily. Consumers should talk to a knowledgeable medical professional about their supplementation needs. Vitamin D supplements are available alone, while multivitamins often contain 400 IU, and some calcium supplements also contain vitamin D.

Harvard Heart Letter, December 2009
Vitamin D Council