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The Sunshine Vitamin and the Winter Blues

It’s a good time to start thinking about vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.  Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin because the first step in making vitamin D involves ultraviolet light penetrating the deep layers of the skin. Cholesterol that is found in the deep layers of the skin absorbs a portion of ultraviolet light.   The light-soaked cholesterol then travels to the liver and is converted into an inactive form of vitamin D.  Inactive vitamin D eventually travels to the kidneys, where it is converted into active vitamin D.  Along the way, our bodies have the ability to finely control this process, but that initial sun exposure is needed to start the process.

For a long time, medicine thought that vitamin D only played a role in bone health.  Vitamin D is essential for maintaining healthy and dense bones.  Vitamin D tells the body to increase the density of bones, by adding more calcium to the bones.   Vitamin D deficiency, generally considered having below 25-30 nmol/L, has been linked to rickets in children; osteomalacia (soft bones) in adults and an increased risk of falls and fractures in people over 65.

However, in the last five years we’ve seen a flurry of activity that suggests vitamin D plays an important role in maintaining optimal function throughout the body.  Vitamin D has been linked to increased immune function and greater ability to fight off and recognize bacteria and viruses that cause disease.  Several population studies have even suggested that individuals with higher vitamin D levels are less likely to develop major diseases such as, multiple sclerosis and cancer, because of the effects of vitamin D on the immune system.  There’s even evidence that vitamin D’s effects on the immune system can help reduce acne.

Vitamin D has also been linked to improvements in athletic performance.  From shaving time off of a sprint to adding height to a basketball player’s jump, vitamin D appears to assist athletic ability through a combination improved muscular contraction, increased repair, and improved mental alertness.  Vitamin D doesn’t only help physical performance; improvements in concentration and overall mood have been associated with higher levels of vitamin D.  Some physicians have even begun using Vitamin D to help treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Unfortunately, for the next 6 months, most people living in Portland won’t be making vitamin D due to the lack of sunshine.  Supplementing is the most consistent way of ensuring adequate vitamin D over the next few months.  Most governmental regulatory bodies recommend between 400-800 IU of vitamin D to prevent disease and maintain current level.  People who are deficient may have to take doses closer to 5000-10,000 IU a day to raise their levels.  A simple non-fasting blood test can tell you what your vitamin D level is and can help direct you to the most appropriate dose of vitamin D to get you through the next few months without sunshine.

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