What makes vitamin D unique is that it is a vitamin and also a hormone your body can make from the sun. Despite the ability to get vitamin D from food and the sun, an estimated 40%-75% of people are deficient.
Why? Vitamin D is not abundant in our food choices and the sun is not a reliable source for everyone.
Many factors affect the skin's ability to produce vitamin D, including season, time of day, latitude, air pollution, cloud cover, sunscreen, body parts exposed, color, and age. Dermatologists recommend using sunscreen and getting vitamin D from food and supplements rather than risk the harmful rays of the sun.
Find Out Which Vitamins and Supplements Are Right For You
Role of Vitamin D
Vitamin D is naturally present in few foods. Since 1930, virtually all cow's milk in the U.S. has been voluntarily fortified with 100 IU of vitamin D per cup. Food manufacturers are fortifying other foods, such as yogurt, cereal, and orange juice, to help consumers fill the nutrient gap in their diets.
Ideally, vitamin D is added to a food or beverage that contains calcium. Vitamin D is needed for maximum absorption of calcium from the intestine, helping to build strong bones and teeth.
Together with calcium, vitamin D can help prevent osteoporosis in older adults. Without enough vitamin D, bones can become brittle and prone to fracture. It is estimated that more than 40 million adults in the U.S. have or are at risk of developing osteoporosis.
"Vitamin D deficiency is associated with low bone mass and osteoporosis, which is estimated to affect 10 million adults over the age of 50 in the U.S.," says Atlanta rheumatologist Eduardo Baetti, MD. Even in Atlanta, where the sunshine is adequate all year long, Baetti says many of his patients -- especially elderly and dark-skinned people -- have low levels of vitamin D because the sun is not a reliable source.
How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?
Bone health was the single focus of the Institute of Medicine's recommendations on how much vitamin D and calcium people should get.
The recommendations for adults up to age 69 rose to 600 IU/day, and to 800 IU/day for adults starting at age 70. Older adults need more vitamin D because as they age, their skin does not produce vitamin D efficiently, they spend less time outdoors, and they tend to not get enough vitamin D.
The committee did not consider the emerging research on any other conditions. Patsy Brannon, PhD, RD, a Cornell University professor of nutritional sciences and a member of the IOM committee, spoke about that at the American Dietetic Association's 2011 annual meeting in San Diego. "The committee of 14 scientists reviewed more than 1,000 publications and determined that the evidence was inconsistent and inconclusive to include any other health benefits in the new recommendations," Brannon said. "The committee is not dismissing the role of vitamin D in other areas, we need more clinical trials, consistent evidence, and evidence that supports causality."