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Enjoy the Sunshine: Why Vitamin D is Vital to Your Health

By William Perryman, M.D.

Even in the sunny state of Texas, Vitamin D deficiency is more common than you would expect.  As studies identify more functions that Vitamin D plays in our health, our understanding of its importance is substantial and growing.

A Mayo Clinic study reported that Vitamin D inadequacy was found in approximately 36% of otherwise healthy young adults and up to 57% of general medicine inpatients in U.S. hospitals.  Even in the South, at least one in four adults is deficient.  In fact, each week I see a few patients in my office whose levels are too low to be measured. 

Why Vitamin D is Important

Most of us recognize Vitamin D in relation to bone health.  It controls calcium and phosphorus absorption to help the body build strong bones and teeth.  Vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets, a failure to mineralize bones in children.  Adolescents and young adults will not reach their peak bone mass if they are Vitamin D deficient.  In adults, we see osteomalacia, a painful softening of bone caused by demineralization.  Also, Vitamin D deficiency can cause the fragile, brittle bones of osteoporosis, which affects twice as many women as men. 

Obstetrician/gynecologists evaluate how female hormones affect women’s overall health throughout her lifespan.  The female hormone estrogen is one of several factors in bone health.  Obstetrician/gynecologists monitor additional factors such as Vitamin D, calcium intake and weight-bearing exercise to help maintain strong bones and prevent the ravages of osteoporosis.

However, Vitamin D is important for both men and women.  As researchers study Vitamin D and how it works in the body, we have learned that Vitamin D has many other functions.  For example, adequate levels of Vitamin D lower a person’s risk of heart and vascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.  Vitamin D appears to reduce the severity and frequency of asthma symptoms.  It has an important role as an immune system regulator and is vital to proper muscle strength and functioning.

Studies continue to determine whether Vitamin D can reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis and Type I diabetes.  Some studies indicate that Vitamin D may help maintain a healthy body weight, and scientists are researching the hypothesis that Vitamin D helps brain functioning in later life.  Even skin conditions such as psoriasis, scleroderma and vitiligo may benefit from adequate levels of Vitamin D.

Getting Vitamin D

The best source of Vitamin D is free:  sunlight.  The body is very efficient at producing Vitamin D from exposure to the sun.  In fact, approximately 15 minutes of sun exposure about three times a week, without sunscreen, on bare arms and face is enough.

If getting Vitamin D is as simple as absorbing the sun’s rays, why are so many of us Vitamin D deficient?   There are several reasons.  Fewer people work outdoors than in past generations.  Some of us heed warnings of skin cancer so well that we always apply sunblock.  As people age, their ability to synthesize Vitamin D decreases, and they often spend less time in the sun.  Also, dark-skinned people need more sun exposure than light-skinned people.  Even air pollution, cloud cover and higher latitudes can diminish the sun’s direct rays. 

If sun exposure does not yield enough Vitamin D, then unfortunately, diet offers limited help.  Only a few foods, including salmon, tuna, mackerel, fish liver oils, egg yolks, and some mushrooms, naturally have significant levels of Vitamin D.  It has been added to many breakfast cereals, breads, milk and other dairy products.  Vitamin D is also readily available in pill form, which might be especially helpful to the elderly and those with more skin pigment.

The National Academy of Science recommends a daily intake of 200 to 600 international units (IU) of Vitamin D per day depending on age.  This recommendation, dating back to 1997, is currently under review and may increase.  Some organizations are presently recommending 800 to 2000 IU per day.

If you spend more time basking in fluorescent light than sunlight, and if you do not take a Vitamin D supplement, then it may be appropriate to have a discussion with your physician.  Your doctor can order a simple blood test to determine if you are deficient in this important substance.

Certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. William Perryman began practicing at Huguley when the hospital opened its doors in 1977.  Dr. Perryman currently practices gynecology in Suite 136 of the medical offices at Huguley and may be reached at 817-293-4833.