Vitamin D is a crucial element for life

It's that time of the year again when families go to the beach, friends lie by the pool and neighbors enjoy cookouts. It is during these times outdoors when people apply sunscreen to avoid sunburns.

But is blocking sunlight giving us a vitamin D deficiency? Forty percent of Americans are vitamin D deficient. The main cause of vitamin D deficiency is lack of sunlight exposure. This can be due to increased sunscreen use or avoidance of sunlight.

What is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is made when our body is exposed to sunlight. It may also be found in some foods and is available as a dietary supplement. Our body stores it in fat cells until it is needed.

Why we need it

Vitamin D's main job is to allow calcium to be absorbed and used by the body. This helps to build strong, healthy bones. Vitamin D also helps fight infections and prevent some diseases such as cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and high blood pressure.

The main problem with vitamin D deficiency is bones becoming soft. This is called rickets in children or osteomalacia in adults and increases the chance of fractures. Other problems of vitamin D deficiency include high blood pressure, fatigue, and low calcium levels.

Who is at risk?

Around 80 percent of nursing home patients and 76 percent of pregnant mothers are vitamin D deficient. These percentages continue to rise.

Others at risk include the elderly, breastfed infants, people who can't absorb fat, people with kidney problems, those with darker skin and the obese.

Sunscreen and sun

Sunscreen allows people to avoid sunburns. However, 15 to 20 minutes of sunlight is not going to harm you. In fact, it will help you get the amount of vitamin D your body needs. But make sure you use sunscreen if you will be in the sun for longer than 20 minutes.

Some tips for proper sunscreen use from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are:

There are other options to help protect your skin from the sun. Hats and sunglasses can be worn to shield the face. Light, long-sleeved shirts may be worn to avoid sunburn. Find a shaded area to enjoy the outdoors while keeping cool and protected from the sun.

Deficiency treatment

Five to 30 minutes of sun exposure without sunscreen twice a week can lead to sufficient vitamin D levels. The amount of sun exposure needed for good vitamin D levels may vary depending on the time of year, weather, location, and skin tone.

Vitamin D supplements are available for people who cannot get enough vitamin D from sunlight. The recommended amount of vitamin D is 200 IU to 600 IU daily depending on age and requirements. Most supplements contain 400 IU.

Vitamin D is available over-the-counter and by prescription. Over-the-counter vitamin D contains lower amounts and can be taken daily. Prescription-strength vitamin D contains higher amounts and is taken less often. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist to determine which strength is best for you.

A word of caution

FDA has recently issued safety warnings for parents who give their children liquid vitamin D.

Some liquid vitamin D droppers allow parents to give their children too much, which can be dangerous. The FDA suggests parents buy liquid droppers that allow only 400 IU to be given.

Salmon, tuna, mushrooms and eggs are good natural sources of vitamin D. Milk, orange juice, yogurt and cereal have vitamin D added to them. When choosing these products, make sure the food label says 'vitamin D fortified.'

Start taking steps to increasing your vitamin D levels. Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D level to determine what, if any, treatment is needed. Go out and enjoy the sun in the spring and summer months. During the fall and winter, eat foods that are high in vitamin D.

David Tate is a student at the University of Charleston School of Pharmacy. He wrote this article during his recent clerkship with the Consumer Health Information Corp. in McLean, Va.



last updated: 2010-07-20 return

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