Vitamin D has been one of the more prominent vitamins talked about and written about in the past decade. As modern research and medicine advances, so does our knowledge of science and nutrition. Yet, the fact remains that a huge part of the population, from robust newborns to the frail elderly, and many others in between are deficient in this essential nutrient.
How deficient are we? Dr. Michael Holick of Boston University, a leading expert on vitamin D and author of “The Vitamin D Solution” (Hudson Street Press, 2010), said in an interview, “We want everyone to be above 50 nanograms per milliliter, but currently in the United States, Caucasians average 18 to 22 nanograms and African-Americans average 13 to 15 nanograms.” African-American women are 10 times as likely to have levels at or below 15 nanograms as Caucasian women, the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found.
With levels this low, there is an ever increasing incidence of chronic disease linked to Vitamin D deficiency. In the Northeast United States, where sun exposure is greatly reduced, most of my patients’ blood work is Vitamin D deficient. Since every tissue in the body, including the brain, heart, muscles and immune system, has receptors for vitamin D, this nutrient is needed at proper levels for these tissues to function well, particularly in young female athletes.
Vitamin D is rarely present in the foods we consume as part of our daily nutrition. Many times, Vitamin D is often added to other foods, sometimes called vitamin D-fortified foods. It can also be taken as a dietary supplement, however, I often caution patients about using these sources as their only means of consumption because you are never aware of the quality of nutrients that the dairy industry uses. The best way to consume Vitamin D is through your largest organ--your skin! When the skin is exposed to the sun, our bodies make vitamin D which is why it is commonly referred to as the sunshine vitamin.
Active female athletes require more Vitamin D than we are led to believe from the dairy industry who adds extra Vitamin D and calcium to milk products. A recent study showed that only consuming Vitamin D and Calcium through dairy sources according to the FDA levels led to a higher incidence of stress fractures in your female athletes.
While maintaining Vitamin D levels above 50 nm/ml, the study group showed a decrease of stress fractures by 50% in female athletes engaging in an hour or more of high impact exercise a day (Kendrin R. Sonneville, ScD, RD, of Children’s Hospital Boston). In my practice, we feel that 50 ng/ml is the minimum optimal level for healthy young athletes.
The reason why Vitamin D is so vital is because it helps your body mobilize and transport calcium to the body. For this reason it plays a key role in protecting you against bone diseases like osteopenia and osteoporosis. It does this by regulating your calcium balance. Calcium is stored in the bones until it is needed by the body. Vitamin D regulates how much Calcium is in the blood stream so it also plays an important role in cardiovascular health.
Lastly, Vitamin D helps strengthen your immune system and regulates cellular growth. Several studies have suggested that vitamin D can improve one’s ability to fight cancer, including breast cancer. There are also suggestions that vitamin D can prevent a wide variety of illnesses and some evidence that taking vitamin D supplements can decrease risk of getting seasonal influenza A in children, as well as decrease the risk of asthma attacks.
Growing children have greater nutritional needs than most people realize. Calcium, Vitamin D, Multi Vitamins, and Omega 3’s are essential to anyone who wants to live a healthier and happier life and these habits start at an early age. Your mother told you to eat your fruits and vegetables and play outside. Although they did not know the scientific evidence why, they knew it was good for you. It is time to start passing these lessons on to the next generation.