Also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is an essential vitamin that’s not really a vitamin. That’s because it’s actually a hormone. Your body makes it from cholesterol, and the process occurs when you’re exposed to sunlight. It’s a fat-soluble substance that’s in a family of compounds that includes D1, D2, and D3.
While the human body makes vitamin D naturally, most people don’t get enough sunlight to make enough. More than 40% of people in the United States are vitamin D deficient.
Signs of a vitamin D deficiency include:
- Muscle weakness
- Pain in your bones
- Changes in your mood (such as depression)
Vitamin D is an important vitamin that plays a role in bone health, immune health, the reduction of inflammation, and more.
Why You Need Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an important nutrient for many reasons. Your body makes it on its own when you expose your skin to sunlight. The recommended daily allowance is 15 micrograms (600 IU) for men and women to maintain bone health. The recommendations are based on the assumption that people get very little sun exposure.
Getting enough vitamin D is essential for avoiding a deficiency. The compound plays vital roles in your body such as:
One of vitamin D’s most important roles is in the health of your bones. It helps your body to absorb calcium, an essential mineral for keeping your bones strong and healthy. Too little vitamin D leads to too little calcium absorption, which can result in bone weakening and osteoporosis. Insufficient vitamin D may also result in rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults, both of which are the result of soft bones.
Vitamin D plays a role in the health and proper functioning of your immune system by directly interacting with cells that fight infections in the body. Many studies have found a link between respiratory illnesses, such as colds and bronchitis, and a vitamin D deficiency.
Some review studies have found a link between depression and vitamin D deficiency. Other studies show that increasing vitamin D may help to improve symptoms of clinical depression in adults.
While more research is needed, studies suggest that vitamin D may play a role in producing compounds necessary for proper wound healing. Some research suggests that people with vitamin D deficiency are more likely to have inflammatory markers that could negatively affect healing.
Vitamin D is important for a healthy pregnancy, and it’s important for infant health. Studies suggest that pregnant women with a vitamin D deficiency may be at a greater risk of developing preeclampsia. Some research suggests that infants with low vitamin D may be at an increased risk of developing food allergies. Vitamin D may also be linked to hardened arteries and high blood pressure in children.
Foods High in Vitamin D
The human body may produce vitamin D on its own, but most people don’t get enough sunlight to produce the amount they need every day. You can take over the counter vitamin D supplements to ensure that you’re getting enough. You can also get vitamin D from a variety of different food sources. The following six foods are some of the best dietary sources of vitamin D available:
1. Fortified Cereals
Dietary sources of vitamin D are limited. Many breakfast cereals are fortified with the vitamin, along with other essential vitamins and minerals, which can help to boost your intake. Cereals fortified with 10% of your recommended daily intake of vitamin D contain 2mg (80 IU) per 1 cup serving. While cereals may be fortified with vitamins and minerals, they may also contain added sugars, so you should read the label.
2. Fortified Dairy (and Non-Dairy Alternatives)
Many dairy products, such as milk and yogurt, are fortified with vitamin D as well, as are non-dairy alternatives like soy milk, almond milk, and oat milk. Fortified milk typically has around 3mg (120 IU) of vitamin D, and non-dairy alternatives have between 2.5 and 3.6mg per 1 cup. Yogurt has between 2 and 3mg of vitamin D per serving. Like cereals, some brands of fortified milk and non-dairy milk may contain added sugar.
3. Orange Juice
Orange juice is another beverage that’s often fortified with vitamin D. A 1 cup serving has 2.5 mg of vitamin D.
4. Cod Liver Oil
Cod liver oil provides a decent amount of vitamin D in a very small serving. Just 1 tablespoon has 34mg, more than double the recommended daily intake.
Fish provide many important nutrients, most notably omega-3 fatty acids. Different species provide varying amounts of calcium, phosphorous, iron, zinc, and iodine. Many species, particularly oily varieties, also have vitamin D. A 3-ounce serving of rainbow trout has 16.2mg and a similar serving of sockeye salmon has 14.2mg. A 3-ounce serving of canned tuna has 1mg.
Mushrooms are one of the best plant-based dietary sources of vitamin D outside of fortified milk alternatives. Mushrooms, like humans and animals, produce vitamin D when exposed to light. Where animals produce vitamin D3, mushrooms make vitamin D2. D2 does help to raise levels of vitamin D in the blood, but studies show it’s not as effective as D3. Wild mushrooms and mushrooms exposed to UV light contain more vitamin D than commercial mushrooms grown in the dark.