It’s no secret that vitamin D is an essential nutrient. You can find it in breakfast staples like eggs, milk, and fortified orange juice, as well as in some mushrooms and in fatty fish such as halibut, salmon, and herring. Your body can even make it when you spend time in the sun.

Still, how much do you really know about what vitamin D can — and can’t — do for your health? Read on to learn what we know so far.

How Is Vitamin D Different From Other Nutrients?

To get a better understanding of vitamin D and scientists’ long-held fascination with its functions, it’s first good to know that not all vitamins and minerals operate in the body alike.

“We’re discovering that vitamin D behaves much less like a vitamin and much more like a hormone,That means vitamin D acts as a messenger rather than a participant in metabolism, potentially affecting everything from weight to how organs function.

How Do You Ensure You Have Enough Vitamin D?

But it’s not easy to get that much vitamin D through diet and sunlight alone. The average amount of the nutrient that an individual gets from food and drink rarely exceeds 288 IU per day. Even drinking milk fortified with vitamin D will get you only 100 IU per 8-ounce glass, and the same goes for most plant-milk substitutes that are fortified with vitamin D. That’s why many people take vitamin D supplements. 

What Vitamin D Can Do for Your Health
Help Prevent Bone Diseases Such as Osteoporosis

It’s clear that vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium. Without enough vitamin D in the body, there will not be enough of calcium’s active form, the hormone calcitriol. Calcium absorption allows the body to maintain a sufficient level of that element as well as phosphate, both of which promote the growth and maintenance of healthy, strong bones. That’s why getting enough vitamin D is critical for warding off bone diseases, such as rickets in children, osteomalacia in adults, and osteoporosis in the elderly.

It is marked by soft and weak bones in children and is typically associated with developing countries, but an inadequate vitamin D level from lack of sun exposure or diet can affect children. Symptoms of rickets include pain in the spine, pelvis, and legs, as well as delayed growth and muscle weakness.

Meanwhile, osteomalacia refers to softening of the bones due to vitamin D deficiency. Its signs include dull, aching pain in the legs, hips, pelvis, ribs, and back, though the condition often doesn’t present symptoms in its early stages.

Osteoporosis is one of the main causes of fractures and broken bones in the elderly. This bone disease results when the cycle of new bone creation and old bone loss becomes unbalanced and more bone is lost than created. Women who are past menopause are at the highest risk of osteoporosis, and as with osteomalacia, people with osteoporosis are often asymptomatic when the disease is in its early stages. Later symptoms may include a stooped posture, declining height, back pain, and an unexpected and immediate bone fracture.

What Vitamin D May Do for Your Health
Improve Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (Seasonal Depression)

While vitamin D’s potential role in helping prevent or manage clinical depression is still unclear because of limited, believe that a person’s vitamin D level may indeed play a role in the risk of seasonal affective disorder, or seasonal depression. People with seasonal affective disorder appear to produce less vitamin D, which may affect the activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Serotonin is the same chemical that your brain pumps out when you go on a long run, eat a piece of chocolate, or hold the hand of the person you love. It’s a feel-good hormone. So when the serotonin level is thrown off you may feel blue or be at a greater risk for mood disorders.

Foroutan points out that healthcare providers may prescribe vitamin D supplements to help treat seasonal affective disorder.

Protect Against Respiratory Infections

Increase your level of vitamin D if you’re deficient, and you may find that you get fewer respiratory infections than usual.

The main limitations? Received a flu vaccine or were diagnosed with the respiratory ailment chronic obstructive pulmonary disease , which are two confounding factors that may have skewed the results.

An accompanying editorial cautions readers to take the findings with a grain of salt, and the authors argue against standard year-round vitamin D supplementation and call for additional research.

Help Protect Against Heart Disease and Stroke 

Is vitamin D heart-healthy? A prior review adequate vitamin D to a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and heart failure. Yet the a large trial involving found no risk reduction for strokes, heart attacks or cardiovascular deaths in people who took 2,000 IU supplements daily.

Reduce the Risk for Type 2 Diabetes 

Observational studies in cell models suggest that vitamin D may help increase insulin sensitivity, boost beta cell function, and lessen inflammation — all potential benefits for reducing the risk of and helping manage type 2 diabetes.

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