Vitamin D Illustration
1 / 22

Vitamin D: Wonder Pill or Overkill?

Wouldn’t it be great if one vitamin could build stronger bones and protect against diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, and depression? Or even help you lose weight? While research doesn't support the idea of a "wonder pill," some researchers still have high hopes for vitamin D -- which comes from our skin's reaction to sunlight, a few foods, and supplements. Learn the facts in the slides ahead … and see who's at risk for a "D" deficiency.

Swipe to advance
Normal Spongy Bone Matrix
2 / 22

Vitamin D Boosts Bone Health

Vitamin D is critical for strong bones, from infancy into old age. It helps the body absorb calcium from food. In older adults with osteoporosis, a daily dose of "D" and calcium helps to prevent fractures and brittle bones. It also has been shown to help reduce falls in elderly community dwellers. Children need "D” to build strong bones and prevent rickets, a cause of bowed legs, knock knees, and weak bones. Adding the vitamin to milk in the 1930s helped to nearly eliminate rickets.


Shown here is the honeycombed structure inside a healthy bone.

Swipe to advance
woman with ms in wheelchair
3 / 22

Vitamin D and Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is more common far away from the sunny equator. For years, experts suspected a link between sunlight, vitamin D levels, and this autoimmune disorder that damages the nerves. One newer clue comes from a study of a rare gene defect that leads to low levels of vitamin D – and a higher risk of MS. Despite these links, there's not enough evidence to recommend vitamin D for the prevention or treatment of MS.

Swipe to advance
woman checking glucose
4 / 22

Vitamin D and Diabetes

Some studies have shown a link between a low vitamin D level and type 1 and type 2 diabetes. So, can boosting your vitamin D levels help ward off the disease? There's not enough proof for doctors to recommend taking this supplement to prevent diabetes. While we know obesity is a risk for both vitamin D deficiency and type 2 diabetes, we don’t yet know if there is a causal relationship between diabetes and vitamin D levels.

Swipe to advance
woman jumping rope
5 / 22

Vitamin D and Weight Loss

Studies have shown that people who are obese often have low blood levels of vitamin D. Body fat traps vitamin D, making it less available to the body. It's not clear whether obesity itself causes a low vitamin D level or if it's the other way around. But one small study of dieters suggests that adding vitamin D to a calorie-restricted diet may help overweight people with low vitamin D levels lose weight more easily. But more evidence is needed to confirm that benefit.

Swipe to advance
Depressed Woman Sitting on Bed
6 / 22

Low "D" and Depression

Vitamin D plays a role in brain development and function, and low levels of vitamin D have been found in patients with depression. But studies don't show that Vitamin D supplementation will help reduce the symptoms of depression.  The best bet is to talk with your doctor about what might help reduce the symptoms of depression.

Swipe to advance
Man Laying on Grass
7 / 22

How Does Sun Give You Vitamin D?

Most people get some vitamin D from sunlight. When the sun shines on your bare skin, your body makes its own vitamin D. But you probably need more than that. Fair-skinned people might get enough in 5-10 minutes on a sunny day, a few times a week. But cloudy days, the low light of winter, and the use of sun block (important to avoid skin cancer and skin aging) all interfere. Older people and those with darker skin tones don’t make as much from sun exposure. Experts say it's better to rely on food and supplements.

Swipe to advance
Food Sources of Vitamin D
8 / 22

Dining With Vitamin D

Many of the foods we eat have no naturally occurring vitamin D. Fish such as salmon, swordfish, or mackerel is one big exception and can provide a healthy amount of vitamin D in one serving. Other fatty fish such as tuna and sardines have some "D," but in much lower amounts. Small amounts are found in egg yolk, beef liver, and fortified foods like cereal and milk. Cheese and ice cream do not usually have added vitamin D.

Swipe to advance
Man Eating Healthy Breakfast
9 / 22

Start Your Day With Vitamin D

Choose your breakfast foods wisely, and you can get a substantial amount of vitamin D. Most types of milk are fortified, including some soy milks. Orange juice, cereal, bread, and some yogurt brands also commonly have added vitamin D. Check the labels to see how much “D” you’re getting.

Swipe to advance
vitamin d pills
10 / 22

Vitamin D Supplements

Eating D-rich foods is the best way to get vitamin D. If you still need help getting enough, there are two kinds of supplements: D2 (ergocalciferol), which is the type found in food, and D3 (cholecalciferol), which is the type made from sunlight. It's recommended for some because it can help improve absorption of natural vitamin D. Both supplements are produced differently, but both can raise vitamin D levels in your blood. Most multivitamins have 400 IU of vitamin D. Check with your health care provider for the best supplements for your needs.

Swipe to advance
Smiling Woman Eating Healthy Breakfast
11 / 22

Are You Vitamin D Deficient?

Problems converting vitamin D from food or sunshine can set you up for a deficiency. Factors that increase your risk include:

  • Age 50 or older
  • Dark skin
  • A northern home
  • Overweight, obese, gastric bypass surgery
  • Milk allergy or lactose intolerance
  • Diseases that reduce nutrient absorption in the gut, such as Crohn's disease or celiac
  • Being institutionalized
  • Taking certain medications such as seizure meds

Using sunscreen can interfere with getting vitamin D, but abandoning sunscreen can significantly increase your risk for skin cancer. So it's worth looking for other sources of vitamin D in place of prolonged, unprotected exposure to the sun.


Swipe to advance
xray of pelvis with osteomalacia
12 / 22

Symptoms of "D" Deficiency

Most people with low blood levels of vitamin D don't notice any symptoms. A severe deficiency in adults can cause soft bones, called osteomalacia (shown here). The symptoms include bone pain and muscle weakness. In children, a severe deficiency can lead to rickets and symptoms of soft bones and skeletal problems. Rickets is rare in the United States.

Swipe to advance
Hand Removing Blood Sample
13 / 22

Testing Your Vitamin D Level

There's a simple blood test used to check your vitamin D level, called the 25-hydroxyvitamin D test. Current guidelines by the Institute of Medicine set a blood level of 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) as a goal for good bone health and overall health. However, some doctors say people should go higher, to about 30 ng/mL to get the full health benefits of vitamin D.

Swipe to advance
Vitamin D Daily Allowances
14 / 22

How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?

The recommended dietary allowance for vitamin D is 600 IU (international units) per day for adults up to age 70. People aged 71 and older should aim for 800 IU from their diet. Some researchers recommend much higher doses of vitamin D, but too much vitamin D can hurt you. Above 4,000 IU per day, the risk for harm rises, according to the Institute of Medicine.

Swipe to advance
Baby Receiving Oral Medication
15 / 22

Daily "D" for Breastfeeding Babies

Breast milk is best, but it doesn’t have much vitamin D. Breastfed babies need 400 IU of vitamin D until they're weaned to fortified formula and can drink at least one liter (about 4 ¼ cups) every day. Starting at age 1, babies drinking fortified milk no longer need a vitamin D supplement. Be careful not to give too much vitamin D to babies. High doses can cause vitamin D toxicity with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, excessive thirst, muscle aches, or more serious issues. 

Swipe to advance
girl drinking milk
16 / 22

Vitamin D for Older Children

Most children and adolescents don’t get enough vitamin D from drinking milk. They should have a supplement with 400 IU to 600 IU. That amount is often included in chewable multivitamins. Children with some chronic diseases such as cystic fibrosis may be at increased risk for vitamin D deficiency. Talk to your child’s doctor about the need for extra vitamin D.

Swipe to advance
Woman Doing Yoga on Dock
17 / 22

How Much Is Too Much Vitamin D?

Some researchers suggest taking far more vitamin D than the 600 IU daily guideline for healthy adults. But too much can be dangerous. Very high doses of vitamin D can raise your blood calcium level, causing damage to blood vessels, heart, and kidneys. The Institute of Medicine sets the upper tolerable limit at 4,000 IU of vitamin D per day. You can’t get too much vitamin D from the sun. Your body simply stops making more. But sun exposure without sunscreen can raise your risk of skin cancer.

Swipe to advance
Patient and Doctor Talking
18 / 22

Drugs That Interact With Vitamin D

Some drugs cause your body to absorb less vitamin D. These include laxatives, steroids, and anti-seizure medicines. If you take digoxin, a heart medicine, too much vitamin D can raise the level of calcium in your blood and lead to an abnormal heart rhythm. It's important to discuss your use of vitamin D supplements with your doctor or pharmacist.

Swipe to advance
polyp in colon
19 / 22

Vitamin D and Colon Cancer

It’s too soon to make a strong case for vitamin D as an overall cancer-fighter. But some earlier studies suggested that people with higher levels of vitamin D in their blood may have a lower risk for colon cancer. Later studies haven't been consistent in finding a link.

Swipe to advance
Man Running on Nature Trail
20 / 22

Vitamin D and Other Cancers

Headlines tout vitamin D as a way to prevent breast and prostate cancer. But researchers don’t have enough evidence to say that the benefits are real. And, vitamin D may boost the risk of pancreatic cancer. The VITAL Study -- a Harvard university study -- of vitamin D and omega-3 is following 20,000 volunteers to find answers. In the meantime, a healthy body weight, regular exercise, and the diet guidelines of the American Cancer Society may help prevent cancer. But current data does not support using Vitamin D to prevent or treat any type of cancer.

Swipe to advance
Blood Pressure Measurement
21 / 22

Vitamin D and Heart Disease

Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to a greater risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart disease. Still, it’s not clear whether boosting vitamin D will reduce heart risks and how much vitamin D is needed. Very high levels of vitamin D in the blood can actually harm blood vessels and the heart by increasing the amount of calcium in the bloodstream.

Swipe to advance
senior woman doing crossword
22 / 22

A Factor in Dementia?

Older people are more likely to have vitamin D levels that are too low. Researchers found that older people with vitamin D deficiency performed poorly on tests of memory, attention, and reasoning compared to people with enough vitamin D in their blood. Still, better studies are needed to learn if vitamin D supplements could prevent, slow, or even improve dementia or mental decline.

Swipe to advance

Up Next

Next Slideshow Title

Sources | Medically Reviewed on 05/30/2018 Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on May 30, 2018

1)         Ashley Karyl/Photographers Choice, Steve Pomberg/WebMD
2)         Scott Camazine/Phototake
3)         Huntstock
4)         Purestock
5)         Stock 4B Creative
6)         AE Pictures Inc./Photodisc
7)         Beto Hacker/Riser
8)         Dorling Kindersley
9)         Maria Spann/Taxi
10)        Thinkstock
11)        Rubberball
12)        Photo Researchers, Inc.
13)        iStockphoto
14)        Derek Henthorn/Stock 4B, Jose Luiz Pelaez Inc/Blend Images
15)        Frederic Cirou/Photoalto
16)        iStockphoto / Thinkstock
17)        Woods Wheatcroft/Aurora
18)        iStockphoto
19)        Copyright © ISM / Phototake -- All rights reserved
20)        Dougal Waters/Photodisc
21)        Adam Gault/SPL
22)        Joel Sartore / National Geographic


American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “OrthoInfo: Vitamin D for Good Bone Health.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Healthy Children: Vitamin D: On the Double.”  

American Cancer Society: “Vitamin D.”

Bertone-Johnson ER. Nutritional Review. August 2009.

Brigham & Women’s Hospital: “Dodging Weight Gain With Vitamin D.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Breastfeeding: Vitamin D Supplementation.”

Diabetes Forecast, “The Role of Vitamin D in Type 2 Diabetes,” December 2011.

Food and Drug Administration: “Infant Overdose Risk With Liquid Vitamin D.”

Harvard School of Public Health: “The Nutrition Source: Vitamin D and Health.”

Institute of Medicine: “Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D,” November 30, 2011.

Institute of Medicine: “Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D, 2011, Report Brief.”

Lavie CJ. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. October 4, 2011.

Linus Pauling Institute: “Micronutrient Information Center: Vitamin D.”

Medical News Today: "Link Between Successful Weight Loss and Vitamin D Levels."

Medscape: "Rickets Clinical Presentation."

Multiple Sclerosis Association of America: “Vitamin D3.”

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin D.”

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: “What Causes MS?”

National Osteoporosis Foundation: “About Osteoporosis: Vitamin D and Bone Health.” "Questions To Ask Before Taking Vitamin and Mineral Supplements."

Ramagopalan SV. Annals of Neurology. December 2011.

Science Daily, “Vitamin D Important in Brain Development and Function,” April 21, 2008.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force: “Vitamin D With or Without Calcium Supplementation for Prevention of Cancer and Fractures.”

University of Minnesota News: “Vitamin D and Weight Loss.”

UW Medicine: “Multiple Sclerosis.”

VITAL: “Welcome to the VITAL Study.”

World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer, “Vitamin D and Cancer,” 2008.

Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on May 30, 2018

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.