Sure, the cooler months bring a much-needed break from the sweltering heat and sweaty outings of summer, but what we need to remember is that even if we think we may have gotten our fill of the sun over the past couple months, those rays are more than just warmth on our skin. They also carry a key factor in what keeps our bodies running strongly — vitamin D.
What might seem like a minor and superfluous detail amid the larger, macronutrient thoughts that the media throws at us, is actually a vital part of keeping our bodies and health in working order. While people are obsessing over more obvious and measurable things, such as the proper proportions of protein to fat to carbs that they’re intaking throughout the day, perhaps you should try searching a little deeper to get a better understanding of what other, smaller things your body is asking for. Micronutrients such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and so on, are the nutrients I have learned to look at for a better and more well-rounded depiction of my health.
This more focused approach to health began with a trip to my physician upon an injury that began at the start of my collegiate running season. A minor ache in my foot’s arch led me to believe that I was lacking enough water, protein, or carbohydrates. Yet as I began to hydrate more and eat almost double what I had been, my ache continued. Dumbfounded and frustrated, I went to see my doctor to try and find the root cause. From that office, I was sent to get blood-work done to measure my levels of a wide range of vitamins and minerals in my body. Sure enough, the results came back with the answers I needed. The cause of my pain wasn’t from a lack of protein or carbohydrates, as I had been convinced of after searching the internet for answers on my own, but rather, a deficiency in some much smaller nutrients.
After discussing my results over with my doctor, I was advised to begin taking a Vitamin D3 supplement. After taking it for some time, in combination with a few other recommendations, I began to notice a shift in my body’s ability to respond to exercise. The pain in my foot went away, my workouts became less taxing and I was able to push myself harder without fear of injury. It felt like a miracle! But what it was actually was just a natural reaction of my body finally getting what it needed. After such a profound physical and mental shift, I became interested in the details of my body’s homeostasis and wanted to get a better grasp on how this vitamin, and others, could help my body maintain long-term good health.
Vitamin D works sort of like a sidekick to other nutrients our body needs. Basically, we need this vitamin to properly regulate calcium and phosphorous absorption and metabolism, which help with our body’s bone health. What this boils down to is the strength of our bones; a deficiency in any of these may cause a disruption in the homeostasis of our bones, which can lead to things such as osteoporosis. Muscle weakness goes hand in hand with deficiency, which adds to the dangers of brittle bones. So what’s the proper level, you might ask? According to the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, adults aged 19-50 should have “at least 600 IU/Day [of Vitamin D] to maximize bone health and muscle function,” and “6000 IU/Day” for those who are tested as deficient.2
Vitamin D levels are especially important to monitor in young children, the elderly, and pregnant women. During pregnancy, a woman is supplying key vitamins and nutrients to not only herself but the baby she carries. By making sure we are giving ourselves the proper amount of Vitamin D, we are creating a homeostasis in our bodies that will allow us to continue moving without fear. So, if you start to notice signs of severe muscle weakness, this could be a clue to get yourself tested by your physician for a deficiency. What might seem like a cue to get into the gym, could actually be your body telling you something intrinsically deeper.
So what’s the most natural way to get your dose of Vitamin D? The sun! But before you use that as an excuse to put on your suit and get outside, it’s important to understand some timing information to keep reality in check. According to researchers Michael Holick and William Grant, those with pale skin only need about four to ten minutes of skin exposure in noonday summer sun, while those with darker skin need roughly 60-80 minutes. This time, of course, varies with “geographical location, skin pigmentation, percentage of body fat, and age,” but it is a rough frame within which you can estimate natural dosages.1
Now, having pale, Irish skin myself, growing up I was always lectured on the importance of wearing sunscreen so much that I have a slight fear of being outside without it. So when I learned the sun is not only trying to turn my skin from snow-white to lobster-red but also trying to give me vital nutrients, I found myself in a conundrum. For those of you in a similar boat, perhaps you’ll find solace in the fact that the “health benefits accruing from moderate UV radiation, without erythema or excess tanning, greatly outweigh the health risks, with skin pigmentation (melanin) providing much of the protection”.1 So yes, wearing sunscreen is still extremely beneficial, but if we are only soaking it up for the small amounts of time recommended for proper Vitamin D absorption, we should be okay.
Now, the sun isn’t the only way to get our dosage either. Fortunately, there are many glorious, delicious, fabulous foods that are naturally filled with Vitamin D as well. Things such as fresh, wild-caught salmon (600-1000 IU/D per 3.5 oz), canned tuna (236 IU/D per 3.5 oz) and egg yolks (20 IU/D per yolk) are all chock full of the stuff. Fortified foods such as milk and cereal can also contain roughly 100 IU/D per 8 oz and 100 IU/D per serving respectively. These are foods that we can easily attain for little cost, making our access to Vitamin D much more accessible than we might be led to believe.
One thing I found to be important to note is the difference between specific fish at the store—for example, fresh, wild-caught salmon contains about six times the amount of Vitamin D as farmed salmon, which can contain about 100-250 IU/D per 3.5 oz.2 So when you go up to the seafood counter and see a sometimes shockingly big price difference between two filets laying side-by-side, remember these numbers. Yes, you might be paying quite a bit more for what appears to be the same thing by choosing the wild-caught salmon filet, but think about the price of your good health. Would you rather pay a couple dollars more at the cash register today or risk your body failing to live up to your expectations down the road?
Now, for those of us looking to get the Vitamin from things other than sunlight and natural or fortified foods, there are supplements you can take. Most multivitamins contain some level of Vitamin D (often listed as D3), while there are specific D3 supplements themselves. Mine, for example, is a generic 1000 IU/D supplement I find in my local grocery store. Though I often choose the same brand, I have tried multiple different brands depending on price—hey, a college girl’s gotta eat—and have never disliked any. I take one pill every night before I go to bed, just because that’s what works best for me, and I have noticed a big difference in my muscle performance since I started. Not only does my body respond better to workouts, but my mind is also at ease knowing that I am creating a healthy routine to keep my muscles, bones, and metabolism running smoothly.
Taking care of our bodies is something we all should be striving to do, and that comes in many forms. Yes, exercising for thirty minutes a day, getting eight hours of sleep a night, and eating a well-balanced diet are all valuable habits to build in our daily lives, but we need to remember the little things too. The media is constantly telling us what to eat, how to workout, what diets to follow, etcetera, but listening to our bodies—our unique, beautiful, one-of-a-kind bodies—is the best way to nourish ourselves. It’s these little cues like getting an adequate amount of Vitamin D that will extend our lives in a healthy way, so make sure you’re paying attention to the details. After all, “great things are done by a series of small things brought together”3