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As summer turns to fall, and as we start to transition back to the office, our sun exposure starts to diminish, which can mean a drop in vitamin D, which is crucial for overall health. “You may be familiar with vitamin D’s role in keeping bones strong and absorbing calcium, but it has a slew of other important functions and benefits, from supporting immunity and brain health to even regulating blood sugar levels,” says Stefani Sassos, RDN, of the Good Housekeeping Institute.
The vitamin, which comes from both sun exposure and food, not only protects against the loss of bone mass, “it also helps muscles function and allows the brain and body to communicate through nerves,” adds Jerlyn Jones, RDN, a spokesperson of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of the Lifestyle Dietitian, who also notes that the immune system uses vitamin D to fight off bacteria and viruses. The immune-boosting properties of vitamin D has never more important than during the COVID pandemic: One study found a connection between lower levels of vitamin D in the blood and a higher risk of contracting COVID-19; other studies found that among COVID patients, those with lower levels of D also were hospitalized longer.
Note: Taking vitamin D alone will not prevent or cure the coronavirus, but building a strong immune system is considered one of the best ways to keep yourself as healthy as possible overall.
Are you getting enough vitamin D?
According to the National Institutes of Health, only about 5% of Americans have what is called a vitamin D deficiency — a serious medical condition that can lead to bone diseases such as rickets. But another 18% have “inadequate” amounts of vitamin D, which can contribute to other health issues. “The most accurate way for you to know whether or not you need a vitamin D supplement is to speak with your healthcare provider, who can order a vitamin D blood test,” says Sassos. You should also consider getting tested if you’re experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, muscle weaknesses, aches, cramps or bone pain, says Jones.
In addition, the following groups may be at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency:
How can you get vitamin D naturally?
The body gets vitamin D two different ways: “The most well-known way to get your dose of D is exposing your skin to sunlight,” Sassos explains, adding that about 15 to 20 minutes a few times a week can usually do the trick. Eating food rich in vitamin D is another way to get your daily dose, but very few foods naturally have the vitamin, says Jones. “The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, sardines and 1 tablespoon of cod liver oil. Beef liver, Swiss cheese and egg yolks also contain small amounts,” she explains. Of course, if you eat a plant-based diet, or just don’t like fish, it gets trickier. “Mushrooms are one of the few vegan sources of vitamin D and also the only vegetable source of the nutrient—if you eat a half cup a day of sliced white mushrooms, you’ll get about half your daily value,” Sassos explains.
Not a big fan of fish or mushrooms? Check the labels of your favorite breakfast foods: Many cereals, juices, yogurts, breads and milks (both from a cow and plant-based) are fortified with vitamin D.
What should you look for in a supplement?
If your blood tests indicate that you need to boost your D, talk to your doctor about the best amount to take in a supplement, and check how much D is in any multis you already take, says Sassos, so you don’t inadvertently take too much (the RDI for men and women up to age 70 is 15mcg, or 600 IU; the upper limit is 100 mcg, or 4,000 IU). “Excessive amounts of vitamin D through supplementation can be toxic,” Sassos adds.
Vitamin D comes in two chemical forms, D2 and D3, and though both are absorbed well by the small intestine and raise blood levels of vitamin D, D3 may raise levels for a longer time. Most supplements are made with D3, which is traditionally manufactured from lanolin, a waxy substance that comes from sheep’s wool. For vegans, there is also a plant-based version of D3 made from lichen. “When choosing a supplement, look for a third-party verification on the container’s label to determine if it has been tested by an independent organization such as ConsumerLab.com, NSF International and US Pharmacopeial Convention,” recommends Jones.
If you’re need a boost of D, here are 11 products to try:
Vitamin D3 1000 IU Tablet
These tablets provide 1,000 IU of D3 — they’re non-GMO certified, tested for 125 herbicides and pesticides and free of gluten, soy and dairy. What they do include is good-for-you ingredients such as brown rice, broccoli and carrot.
Vitamin D3 2000 IU Supplement
One of the best-reviewed brands on Amazon, these soft gels are produced in an FDA-regulated facility and contain sunflower oil to aid absorption.
Vitamin D 2500 IU Supplement
If you’re a vegan, you face a special vitamin D challenge — you may not get enough in your plant-based diet, yet most D supplements contain lanolin, which is an animal product. Naturelo makes its D supplements from wild-harvest lichen and gives you 2,500 IU per capsule.
Hello Happy Gummy Supplement
These fruit-flavored, worm-shaped gummies get their bright colors from natural ingredients, including carrot and blackcurrant juices, and provide 2,000 IU of D3. They also include saffron extract, which aims to provide a “feed-good” serotonin boost.
Essential for Women Multivitamin
This subscription-based multi for women contains 2,000 IU of lichen-based D3, which makes it ideal for vegans. It also contains folate, iron and B12. These vitamins are free of allergens and artificial colors and fillers, and are verified by United States Pharmacopeia (USP).
If the thought of swallowing down tablets or pills has you gagging, try drinking down your D with these Canadian-made sachets, which you pour into water for a fruity-tasting beverage. The Sunshine Blend includes 800 IU of D, as well as other heath-boosting ingredients such as lion’s mane, turmeric extract and mushroom powder.
Vitamin D3 1000 IU Drops
Tested and approved by NSF International, these flavorless drops contain coconut oil for absorption and can be added to any food or just licked off a spoon.
Vitamin D3 1000 IU Chewable Tablets
You get 1,000 IU of D3 from one of these grape-flavored chewables, which are USP-certified and come in at a reasonable price. If chewables remind you too much of your childhood, the company also makes gummies, softgels and tablets.
Liquid Vitamin D3 Drops
Each drop of this water-soluble supplement contains 1,000 IU of D3, so you can customize your dosage. You can drop them into juice, coffee, yogurt or oatmeal for a tasty dose of D.
Fermented Vitamin D3 Tablets
Certified organic and gluten-free, these D3 drops are fermented for increased absorption and also contain health-boosting turmeric and reishi.
Vitamin D & Zinc Strips
For a completely different way to get some extra D, these little strips dissolve on your tongue, leaving you with 10mcg of vitamin D, as well as zinc, echinacea extract and propolis from honey bees.
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