Vitamin D Key for Healthy Bones … And Maybe A Lot More Too

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Is vitamin D about to become the new super vitamin? Here, how much you need and the best ways to get it

If you’re over 50 you should be taking vitamin D supplements. That’s the bottom line.

According to Health Canada recommendations (which have increased in recent years) people aged 19 to 70 need 600 IU a day. If you’re over 70 it jumps to 800 IU a day. The upper limit is identified as 4,000 IU.

Experts have long known that vitamin D is key to building and maintaining strong bones, and now there’s increasing speculation it could be good for a whole lot of other things too.

“There has been a lot of research around vitamin D having to do with its role in immunity, preventing infections, blood pressure and heart disease, and cancer prevention, so there’s a lot of interest,” says Debbie Reid, a Vancouver-based registered dietician and a spokesperson with Dieticians of Canada. “But the research is still evolving.”

What we do know, as far as bone health is concerned, is that 90 per cent of bone building happens during the period from childhood to the end of our teens, says Debbie. “It’s like putting money in the bank.” After that we cruise along until our 40s, but that’s when we also start to lose some of our bone minerals. Menopause brings on even more bone loss for women and once we’re all into our 60s and beyond that’s when our bones are most at risk.

Vitamin D plays a key role in supporting bone health as we age and combined with calcium (which it helps the body absorb) it can help guard against osteoporosis, a disease characterized by low bone mass and the deterioration of bone tissue. While there are other factors involved, such as genetic predisposition, according to Osteoporosis Canada, one out of every two women over 50 will sustain an osteo-related fracture, as will one in eight men over 50.

Vitamin D won’t magically repair bones in your later years, but what it can do is help to slow down bone loss, says Debbie.

Okay then, so how do we get it?

While our skin produces vitamin D when exposed to the sun, as we age our skin can’t do the job as well, plus our Canadian climate keeps us bundled up for most of the year. Even during times when we are exposed to those glorious rays, sun screen further diminishes our ability to produce the vitamin.

Certain foods like canned salmon, canned sardines and egg yolks also contain some vitamin D, and so does milk which has been fortified. Certain orange juices, plus some soya, almond and rice milks are also now fortified, but you have to read the labels to see which ones.

Debbie says even doing that can be confusing since not all manufacturers have changed their labels to take into account the new, higher recommended daily doses. For example, if a label hasn’t been updated and indicates your cup of fortified soya milk contains 15 per cent of your daily vitamin D requirements, it could mean you’re only getting 15 percent of 200 IUs, instead of 15 per cent of the recommended 600 or 800 IUs.

While diet is always important for good health, it is very difficult to get the recommended dosage of vitamin D from diet alone. “Most people in Canada need to take a supplement to meet their needs,” says Debbie. Vitamin D3 (the most common type) is readily available in most pharmacies and grocery stores that carry supplements. It usually comes in 400 IUs and 1,000 IU, and sometimes in 2,000 IU.

From a more technical viewpoint, experts know that once we ingest vitamin D, either in food or supplements, it undergoes changes as the liver and then the kidneys work to metabolize it, making it useable for our bodies. Now, scientists are discovering it can also cause chemical changes in many other tissues as well. “That’s where a lot of the interest is happening,” says Debbie.

Okay, so we get that it’s essential for good bone health, especially as we age, but could it be that vitamin D is about to become the super vitamin of the future?

Time will tell, but we do know one thing. “It is getting the most attention right now,” says Debbie.