Do You Need a Vitamin D Supplement? BY KRISTEN DOMONELL

child's sunshine drawing on a rain covered window

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, helping you build strong bones and stave off osteoporosis. It’s also important for your immune system and your muscles. Typically, the sun helps your body produce all the vitamin D you need, or at least close enough that you can get the rest through your diet.

But if you live in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a good chance you aren’t getting enough of it in the fall and winter months, says Heather Tick, M.D., a family medicine doctor at University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt.

“Even if you go to the top of Mount Rainier in the middle of winter and get a sunburn, you won’t be getting the UVB rays you need to make vitamin D,” she says.

This is a problem, because vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a whole host of health issues from heart disease and depression to Parkinson’s diseasemultiple sclerosisdementia and Alzheimer’s disease. And if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer or prostate cancer, your chances of survival may be lower than someone with normal vitamin D levels.

So how can you tell if you need more vitamin D—and if you should stock up on supplements to make it through the next few months? Here’s everything you need to know about the sunny day vitamin.

Sun, sardines and supplements: How your body gets vitamin D

The sun emits two types of ultraviolet rays that reach the earth: UVA (long-wave) and UVB (short-wave). UVA rays penetrate your skin more deeply. UVB rays, on the other hand, help your body make vitamin D. But getting the vitamin D you need isn’t quite as simple as stepping outside.

In the winter—especially in northern latitudes—the sun never gets high enough in the sky for UVB rays to penetrate the atmosphere and reach your skin, says Tick.

That means that from about September to June, you can’t rely on the sun to give you the vitamin D you need, she says. Plus, if you wear sunscreen in the summer, as you should, you can kiss your vitamin D production goodbye.

Sunny days aside, you can also get vitamin D from food, but the options are limited. Fatty fish like salmon, swordfish, tuna, mackerel and sardines are all sources of vitamin D, as are egg yolks. Some cereals, orange juice, milk, cheese and yogurt are fortified with vitamin D, too, meaning it’s added in during production to make it easier for people to sneak in vitamin D.

How much vitamin D do you need?

Unless you are really vigilant about tracking vitamin D in the foods you eat, it can be hard to know if you’re getting enough. Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can be vague, says Lucille Marchand, M.D., a family medicine doctor at UW Medical Center.

Many people who have lower-than-normal vitamin D levels don’t realize it. Your doctor may suggest a blood test to measure your vitamin D level if you have fatigue, muscle aches or bone aches that can’t be attributed to something else, she says.

“If they correct the deficiency, chances are, they’re going to help that person feel better,” says Marchand.

How much do you need? The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended dietary allowance is 600 international units up to age 70, and 800 IU for people who are older. Both Marchand and Tick agree these recommendations are conservative.

Plus, higher daily doses through supplementation may be beneficial for people with chronic pain or those who are trying to

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