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Vitamin D is key in the cooler months

Temperatures are dropping, and the days are getting shorter. And shorter days give us less time outdoors to get a healthy dose of sunshine -- and vitamin D.

So in addition to pulling out the wool sweaters, we need to winterize our diets to make sure we get the vitamin D we need this season.

The Role of Vitamin D

This vitamin controls a variety of body functions. One of its fundamental roles is to help absorb calcium into our bones and teeth.

Both calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health and muscle strength. Vitamin D helps maintain muscle strength -- which may explain why we need more with advancing age, as muscles becoming weaker and the tendency for falls becomes greater. In addition, as we age, our ability to produce vitamin D from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays becomes less efficient.

Vitamin D deficiency can lead to weak bones and aches and pains. Around the globe, researchers have found that adults over 50 tend to not meet the nutritional requirements for this vitamin -- especially those with dark skin, who are at a higher risk of not absorbing vitamin D from the sun.

Recommendations for vitamin D are 200 international units (IU) for people under 50; 400 IU for people aged 50-70; and 600 IU for those over 70. Some researchers suggest that the elderly may need even more than these recommendation amounts.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it gets stored in the body and can potentially become toxic at high levels. Doses of 1,000 IUs a day are considered safe.

The Sunshine Vitamin

Vitamin D has a unique quality: Sunshine is one of our best sources for it. When our skin is exposed to UV rays, this stimulates a metabolic pathway that produces vitamin D.

This process requires sun exposure without sunscreen (and not through a window). Experts say that if you get 10-15 minutes of strong sunshine on your arms and face at least twice a week, it should meet your vitamin D needs. Dark-skinned people may need more than this amount.

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