ISHPEMING - Those of us who live in the Upper Peninsula don't have to deal with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods or hurricanes. One of the few curses of living so far north, however, aside from the obvious frigid winters, is that we are exposed to so little sunlight during the winter months that the lack of sunshine can cause a deficiency of Vitamin D in our bodies.
"Vitamin D is known as the 'sunshine vitamin,' and it's called that because it's produced in our skin from exposure to sunlight," said Deb Sergey, supervisor at Marquette General Hospital's Nutrtition and Wellness/Diabetes Education Dept. "Why we need Vitamin D is it helps us absorb calcium, which we need to keep our bones strong and to grow."
Sergey said it doesn't take very long for your body to absorb the Vitamin D from sunlight - about five to 30 minutes of sun exposure twice a week without sunscreen between the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. should be adequate. But that won't work in the winter, when the sunlight has to travel farther to reach us.
Pharmacy technician Abby Garceau holds a bottle of Vitamin D3 at Snyders Drug Stores in Negaunee on Monday. Vitamin D3, made from an animal-based source, is easier for our bodies to absorb most effectively. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Even on sunny days — like this one on the Carp River in Ishpeming — the sun doesn’t provide enough ultraviolet rays during the winter for our body to make Vitamin D this far north, leaving some people with a deficit that can cause various health problems, including weakened bones and bone pain. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
"I would say that recommendation is more for our July and August months," Sergey said.
Your body being low on Vitamin D can make your body susceptible to a variety of illnesses caused by weak or weakened bones, including osteoporosis and osteomalacia - bone pain from weakened bones - making Vitamin D especially important for older folks and growing kids.
The best way to make sure you're getting enough Vitamin D? Sergey and Mary Charlebois, a registered dietitian at MGH, recommend getting it through your food, by supplementing your diet with foods like tuna and salmon, which not only naturally have Vitamin D but also Omega-3 fatty acids as well.
"The recommended daily intake (of Vitamin D) for most people can be met by drinking two to three cups of milk (or yogurt) plus eating three to four ounces of either tuna or salmon daily," Charlebois said. "These are all healthy foods I like to see people eating every day to help meet their nutrition needs."
Charlebois and Sergey said that milk, soy milk and yogurts are often fortified with the vitamin, as are some orange juices.
There are also supplements available, but Sergey and Charlebois recommended getting your Vitamin D level tested before going that route.
"First of all, I would say that people should probably have their Vitamin D levels checked and talk to their doctor about taking supplementation ... to make sure they really do need it," Charlebois said.
"If your level is fine and you're taking high doses of Vitamin D, you can get a toxicity," Sergey said. "And you wouldn't want that. So many doctors like to test before (prescribing a supplement), but it's one of those expensive tests, so insurance doesn't always cover it."
Charlebois said a person who has kidney or bowel problems or osteoporosis is more likely to be able to get a Vitamin D test paid for by their insurance.
Seeing a doctor will also enable a person to talk with him or her about any potential interactions with other drugs you may be taking, as some medicines can affect how well the vitamin can be absorbed.
Those who are looking to take a Vitamin D supplement can find them at the local pharmacy or drug store. Sergey recommends taking 1,000 international units of Vitamin D3 per day. D3 is an animal-based source, Sergey said, while D2 has been made from a plant, meaning that our bodies are better able to absorb the "D3" type.
"Vitamin D3 is absorbed better, so that's the preferred form, because your body doesn't have to go through the work of changing it," she said. "More isn't better with this vitamin, but 1,000 is pretty conservative, 1,000 would be safe," she said.
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.