Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is a multitasking micronutrient that helps keep our bodies and minds firing on all cylinders by supporting our heart, bones, brain, and immune system. But many Americans—especially women—don’t get enough of it.
How to buck the trend? Get a tan! The simplest way to get your daily dose of vitamin D is to take in twenty to thirty minutes of midday sun, sans sunscreen. The amount of time you need to spend basking depends somewhat on your skin color: people with lighter skin typically synthesize faster. True, your dermatologist (or your mom) may object to the UVs, so if you’re a night owl, an indoor cat, or just one of the many women who ride or die by their SPF, try adding a supplement or a sardine to your repertoire instead (more on this below).
Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency
When vitamin D deficiency rears its sluggish head, here’s how you might know:
A recurring case of the Mondays
Vitamin D encourages the production of serotonin, which can lift your mood, improve cognitive function, and help regulate food cravings—all things that help you make it through to Friday happy hour. Without enough, you might find yourself fighting fatigue, irritability, or even depression.
To stay on your game, stay on your vitamin D, whether you’re a committed yogi or a weekend warrior. Deficiency has been linked to muscle weakness, decreased muscular size, and lowered athletic endurance, which could mess with your training schedule or give your spin class frenemy an unearned leg up.
Pains and aches
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to lower bone density and an increased risk of stress fractures, musculoskeletal pain in general, and lower back pain in particular. Who’s got time for that?
Affairs of the heart (and upper respiratory system)
Spending too little time outside could give you the blues, but it can also have more serious consequences if your vitamin D levels drop. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to heart disease and high blood pressure, and because vitamin D boosts immune function, promotes healing, and keeps inflammation in check, maintaining ideal levels may help defend against certain kinds of cancer, aid the body in fighting the flu and chest colds, and prevent immune system illnesses, which affect women more frequently than men.
Ways to Increase Your Intake (that Won’t Give You a Sunburn)
If spending your lunch breaks at the beach isn’t a mission easily accomplished, you can still get your daily vitamin D from certain foods:
This category includes fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines—everyone’s favorite airplane snack. If you’re feeling particularly brave, try out some cod liver oil. One tablespoon will give you over three times your daily requirement of vitamin D.
In the United States, vitamin D fortified foods are easily found around the breakfast table. Most milk, some yogurt and soy milk, and many brands of orange juice and breakfast cereals (including some oatmeal) have added vitamin D. Be sure to check nutrition labels to make sure your getting the fortified versions of your favorites.
Mushrooms and eggs
Egg yolks and UV-exposed mushrooms are also edible sources of vitamin D. They don’t have much in common, but together they make a tasty omelet.
If fish, dairy, and eggs don’t appeal to your palate—or if you’re vegan—don’t worry. Vitamin D supplements are widely available, in both vegan (D2) and non-vegan (D3) forms.
So how do you know if all of these tips and tricks are paying off? Official results can be determined by a blood test called 25-hydroxyvitamin D or 25(OH)D. There is no formal definition of vitamin D deficiency, but a 25(OH)D concentration of 30 ng/ml is considered normal, and most experts acknowledge that anything under 20 ng/ml is in deficiency territory. To know whether you’re walking on sunshine and getting enough vitamin D, talk to your doctor at your annual physical and ask whether you should consider taking a supplement, modifying your diet, or consulting with a registered dietician.