Most people get less sun as they get older, putting them at risk for lower vitamin D levels. Here’s why it matters, and what to do next.


Vitamin D has long been thought of as a partner to calcium. After all, without vitamin D, calcium can’t make its way into your bones.  You’ve likely also noticed that it’s been getting more attention lately because in addition to its role in bone health, researchers are learning that vitamin D plays a quiet, but very important role in many other aspects of wellness and disease.

Unfortunately, for many folks over the age of 40, they don’t get enough  vitamin D.

Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because, in addition to getting some in your diet, most vitamin D is made in your skin when it’s exposed to the sun. The problem is, we don’t spend as much time in the sun when we get older.

Along with A, E, and K, vitamin D is one of the fat-soluble vitamins which means you need to consume it along with fat in your food in order to absorb it. However, there’s another problem – not many foods are a good source of D.

A true vitamin D deficiency, which results in soft bones, or rickets, was and still is rare in this country. A little sunshine, a little from your diet, a little from a multi-vitamin, and it should be sufficient.

However, it’s not so much a true deficiency that the medical world is worried about.  In fact, it’s the long-term effects of having “less than adequate” vitamin D levels – and it seems that a large percentage of us are in that category.

So what does vitamin D actually do?

Understanding exactly how vitamin D functions in various biological roles is complex, and more research still needs to be done.  However, research studies which follow large groups of people over a long period show that those who have higher levels have less risk, while those who have lower levels (even at the low end of normal) are at increased risk for many diseases and conditions, including:

  • Osteoporosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • Insulin resistance
  • Depression and other mood disorders
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Increased levels of inflammation markers or signs that there is increased inflammation in the body
  • Autoimmune diseases – such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, lupus, Crohn’s disease
  • Weight gain
  • Infectious diseases

So what level of vitamin D is considered normal?

According to the National Institutes of Health, a healthy level is at least 20 ng/mL or higher. Anything below 12 ng/mL means you’re at risk for deficiency and rickets, and there are other problems that also come with being too high (over 50 ng/mL).

As you age, your body is less efficient at making vitamin D from the sun. For example, someone who is 70-years-old only makes about 25% of the vitamin D that a 20-year-old makes from the same amount of sun exposure. That’s why it’s especially important to stay mindful about the types of food you eat.  While it’s not widespread in our food supply, there are many ways to find it at the grocery store (especially in seafood).

  • 3 oz  of wild salmon (1,000 IU)
  • 3 oz of oysters (545 IU)
  • 3 oz of farmed salmon (275 IU)
  • 3 oz of canned tuna (135 IU)
  • 8 oz of milk (100 IU)
  • 2 oz of mushrooms (50 IU)
  • 1 whole egg (25 IU)

Now you may be wondering, “Can’t I just pop a supplement?”

According to the National Institutes of Health, all adults need at least 600 IU each day to maintain healthy levels. However, if you live in the northern latitude, don’t spend much time outdoors, or don’t consume vitamin D rich foods, most adults can benefit from taking a supplement that provides between 1,000 and 2,000 IU/day. This can especially be beneficial if you have an autoimmune disease such as celiac or Hashimoto’s hypothyroid disease.

As always, the best way to know how much to supplement is to be tested for vitamin D by a health professional so an appropriate amount based on your blood level can be recommended. So eat well, and supplement if needed!

Don’t let a lack of vitamin D get in the way of living your best life.

Adapted from the original article.

Anne Danahy, MS, RD is a Scottsdale-AZ-based registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant specializing in women’s health and healthy aging. Anne is passionate about teaching people how to make the science of nutrition more delicious on their plates. Visit her at Craving Something Healthy.