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Published April 25, 2012, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Understanding of vitamin D’s role in health grows

When I went to medical school, nutrition was not really on the radar, and taking vitamins was even trivialized by some as a great way to “make expensive urine.”

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

When I went to medical school, nutrition was not really on the radar, and taking vitamins was even trivialized by some as a great way to “make expensive urine.”

Times have changed and most medical professionals feel that a multi-vitamin and in some cases omega-3 fatty acids can have a positive effect on health. Adding to this list, vitamin D has become a media darling.

What’s the hype? Turns out that vitamin D plays a role in many physiological functions, so it’s worth learning more about and making sure that you get enough.

Vitamin D is a not truly a vitamin, but a fat-soluble hormone best known for working with calcium in your body to help build and maintain strong bones. vitamin D is needed to help absorb calcium.

Children who don’t get enough vitamin D may not grow as much as others their age. They also have a chance of getting a rare disease called rickets, which causes weak bones.

People who do not get enough calcium and vitamin D throughout life have an increased chance of having thin and brittle bones (osteoporosis) in their later years. We often hear of elderly patients who break bones, even with minor falls, and suffer major, life-threatening consequences.

Your body also uses vitamin D to help your muscles absorb calcium and work well. If your muscles don’t get enough calcium, then they can cramp, hurt or feel weak. You may have long-term (chronic) muscle aches and pains. Getting enough vitamin D helps prevent these problems.

Calcium is best taken along with vitamin D because the body needs vitamin D in order to absorb calcium. The recommended daily intake for calcium ranges from 700 IU for small children to 1,200 IU for adults. The RDI of vitamin D is 600 IU for small children to 800 IU for adults.

RDI is a controversial topic for many supplements, and some researchers feel that we should take up to 2,000 IU of vitamin D.

Calcium is in foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt; vegetables like broccoli, kale and Chinese cabbage also have calcium. You can get calcium if you eat the soft edible bones in canned sardines and canned salmon. Foods with added (fortified) calcium include some cereals, juices, soy drinks and tofu. The food label will show how much calcium was added.

Vitamin D is in foods such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. These are some of the best foods to eat when you are trying to get more vitamin D. Other foods that have vitamin D, but in small amounts, include cheese, egg yolks and beef liver. You can also get vitamin D from fortified foods such as milk and some cereals, orange juices, yogurts, margarines and soy drinks.

Supplements can help if you are having a hard time getting enough in your diet. Many multi-vitamins contain calcium and vitamin D, but if you need more, you can add them individually.

The sun also helps our body produce vitamin D, but you don’t need to overdo it. Exposure of arms or legs for 15 minutes three times a week provides ample vitamin D for our bodies, though that’s not easy to do during the winter here in the Upper Midwest. And I prefer to protect my face with sunscreen, to ward off wrinkles and worse.

Can there be too much of a good thing? Yes, the upper limit of calcium ingestion is 2,000 IU for adults, and for vitamin D it is 4,000 IU. Too much calcium can cause confusion, constipation, irregular heart rhythm and kidney stones.

I have personal experience here. I got a kidney stone in high school. I was working at Baskin-Robbins in the Northport Shopping Center at the time. I think it was a case of too much ice cream (quality control, right?) and not enough water.

Too much vitamin D can cause nausea and vomiting, constipation and weakness.

Calcium and vitamin D can impact how other medicines work, sometimes making them stronger, in other cases, minimizing their effects. Some drug/supplement interactions can cause unusual side effects and be dangerous.

Before you start taking calcium and/or vitamin D, or any supplement, tell your doctor about all of the medicines you take, including over-the-counter drugs, herbs and pills.

Researchers are also beginning to find that low levels of vitamin D may be linked to other diseases, including breast and colon cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and obesity.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that too little vitamin D causes these conditions, but that people with higher levels of vitamin D are less likely to get these diseases.

Vitamin D is also involved in regulating the immune system and cells, and researchers are investigating this as a potential cancer-fighting link.

What’s the take away? Take a close look at your diet and consider adding calcium and vitamin D if the numbers don’t add up. Get a few minutes of sunshine. Get your vitamin D level checked, and see how making some simple changes may improve your health.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.

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