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(Probably) Everything You Should Know About Vitamin D Deficiency

Quick — when is the last time you ate cod liver oil? Can't remember?

You're probably not the only one, but if you're looking to really up your vitamin D intake, it has the highest amount per serving. Next in line is trout and salmon, with about half the amount of vitamin D as cod liver oil.

Not many foods contain much vitamin D naturally, so most Americans tend to get it from fortified foods (nutrients have been added). For instance, most of the US milk supply and breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin D.

Vitamin D doesn't just come from food. Some of it comes from sun exposure, too. In fact, just 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure may be enough to get the recommended amount of vitamin D. However, that can be tricky while you're trying to practice sun safety, which is important to lower your risk of skin cancer, or on cloudy days.

Whether it's because people don't eat a lot of the few vitamin D-containing foods available, or they avoid too much sun exposure, vitamin D deficiency is common — and it can lead to a number of health problems.


In addition to more bone complications like loss of bone density and osteoporosis, vitamin D deficiency has recently been linked to the risk of more serious complications from COVID-19. However, COVID-19 is still a very new illness, and findings such as this one don't have enough necessary evidence to confirm their validity.

Still, it's important to ensure you're getting the right amount of vitamin D in order to keep your bones strong and your body healthy. Here's a look at vitamin D deficiency — and how you can get the right amount.

The Down-low on Vitamin D

Similar to many vitamins and minerals, vitamin D plays more than one role in how your body functions. Primarily, it helps your body absorb calcium, one of the most important building blocks of your bones. This is why a lack of vitamin D can be so detrimental to bone strength.

In addition, vitamin D plays a role in your:
  • Immune system, which helps limit or prevent infection
  • Muscular system, which helps with your stability and movement
  • Nervous system, which is the center of all thought, learning, and memory

There are three main sources of vitamin D:

  1. Direct exposure from the sun. Your body produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun. Factors that will cut down on how much you produce include cloudy days, shade, and having darker colored skin. However, as important as vitamin D is, it's still critical to limit the amount of exposure you have to sunlight in order to reduce your risk of skin cancer. This means you should wear protective clothing and apply sunscreen of SPF 8 or higher when in the sun for more than a few minutes. (Also, don't forget to avoid tanning beds!)
  2. Foods. These include fatty fishes (like salmon or tuna), cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified foods (like milk, breakfast cereals, or orange juice).
  3. Supplements. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans take vitamin D supplements daily.

How Much Vitamin D Do I Need?

Getting the right levels of vitamin D depends on your age, and it's measured in either micrograms or international units (IUs).


The daily recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) of vitamin D are:
  • Birth to 12 month olds: 10 mcg/400 IU
  • 1 to 70 years old (including pregnant and breastfeeding women): 15 mcg/600 IU
  • 71 years and older: 20 mcg/800 IU

If you're at a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency, however, you may need more. Your healthcare provider can recommend how much vitamin D you should be getting.

The Possible Causes of Vitamin D Deficiency

You drink your milk, you eat fish every once in a while, and you get outdoors (while wearing sunscreen!). Maybe you even take a vitamin D supplement. Even if you take all the right measures, certain health conditions can increase your chances of having vitamin D deficiency.

Risk factors for having low vitamin D levels include:

  • Older age
  • Dark skin
  • Obesity
  • Crohn's, celiac, chronic kidney, or liver disease
  • Hyperparathyroidism (too much of a hormone that controls your calcium level)
  • Osteoporosis
  • Medications that affect how much vitamin D you absorb, such as those used to treat seizures or HIV/AIDS

Complications of Getting Too Much Vitamin D

Vitamin D toxicity is when there is so much vitamin D in the body that it becomes harmful. This can lead to kidney damage or hypercalcemia (too much calcium in the blood), which can cause confusion, disorientation, and heart rhythm abnormalities.

Usually, vitamin D toxicity occurs from overusing supplements. Signs include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Poor appetite
  • Weakness
  • Constipation
  • Weight loss

Getting the Right Amount of Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency can cause a number of health problems — but getting too much can be just as problematic. This is why it's critical to keep in touch with your healthcare provider regarding how much vitamin D you're getting each day.

Your provider may order a blood test to test your vitamin D levels, especially if you have signs of deficiency (such as bone weakness or fractures) or you're at risk of deficiency. The good news is that treatment usually includes simply taking a supplement (and maybe eating a little more cheese or fish every once in a while).

Vitamins and minerals like vitamin D play an important role in your overall health. A well-balanced diet and open communication with your provider can help ensure your body has enough of them to do its job in keeping you healthy.

Do you have questions about vitamin D deficiency? Call 610-738-2300 to find and talk to a Chester County Hospital healthcare provider about getting tested or how to improve your levels.


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About this Blog

Chester County Hospital's Health e-Living Blog offers a regular serving of useful health and lifestyle information for the residents of Chester County, PA and the surrounding region.

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