A dietician’s view: How to get the most out of your vitamin D supplements

A vitamin D deficiency could lead to several health problems. Vitamin D is essential for the proper development and maintenance of bones, but it is also essential for nerve, musculoskeletal and immune function. Therefore, having low amounts in your system puts your body at risk in several ways. If you find you’re deficient, it might seem easy to just grab the nearest vitamin D supplement and keep it moving. However, things are not that simple in reality.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means its absorption depends on the gut’s ability to absorb fat from the diet. Most people know that sun exposure helps our skin produce vitamin D on its own. It is relatively easy for the body to initiate this process, especially since short flashes of sunshine are enough to do it. Vitamin D is also abundant in fatty fish and seafood, including cod liver, salmon and sardines.

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Despite the various sources available, over 41 percent of Americans are vitamin D deficient. Scientists are still working to understand vitamin D metabolism because all the possible reasons for the prevalence of deficiency are still unclear. A diet low in vitamin-rich foods and lack of sunlight are two key explanations, but there is still a lack of understanding on a deeper level. For example, African Americans have shortage rates that are nearly double those of the general population. At the same time, they tend to have higher bone density and a lower risk of osteoporosis than Caucasians.

Vitamin D supplements are typically the first line of defense against a deficiency, and for good reason. The supplements have shown promise in protecting against diseases like diabetes and dementia. However, it is important to know the best ways to choose and take this type of supplement due to the different forms available, their fat-soluble nature, its relationship to calcium, and absorption trends.

Vitamin D2 versus Vitamin D3

There are two forms of vitamin D you’ll see on supplement labels: vitamin D2 and D3.

D2 is the form found in plant foods that is not as effective as D3, which is the more active form our bodies produce. In most cases, your doctor will probably tell you to find D3, but taking it a step further may be the key to truly raising your levels.

How to maximize your integration

Going a step further than just making sure you have a D3 supplement can be key to ensuring your body is equipped with what it needs to process vitamin D effectively and truly boost your levels.

Maintain a healthy weight

  • Since vitamin D is fat soluble, the more overweight a person is, the more vitamin D will be found in fat cells rather than in the bloodstream. For this reason, it is common for overweight and obese people to be deficient and need higher vitamin doses to correct them.

Eat boron-rich foods

  • Boron is an element in food that you may not hear much about, but you probably should. It helps your body metabolize key vitamins and minerals, with vitamin D being one of the best. Boron essentially potentiates vitamin D by extending its half-life. In other words, it makes vitamin D take longer to break down in the body, therefore leaving you with higher amounts for longer. It also helps regulate magnesium and phosphorus, both of which are also key parts of vitamin D metabolism. While there’s no established dietary recommendation for boron, it’s still important to make sure you’re getting some every day. Common food sources include: apples, coffee, dried beans, milk, and potatoes. Some people choose to supplement, but it’s easy to overdo it, so it’s best to talk to your doctor before considering it.

Make sure your supplement contains vitamin K

  • Unless you’re eating a lot of natto or goose liver pate, you probably aren’t getting too much bioavailable vitamin K. If you choose to supplement with vitamin D, try to find one that also contains vitamin K2. Both vitamins work synergistically to make sure calcium stays in balance. Vitamin D3 helps your body absorb calcium easily, and K2 helps ensure that said calcium reaches your bones rather than your arteries, which could lead to plaque buildup. Including vitamin K is especially important for people with severe deficiencies who require high doses of D3. Studies have shown that taking high doses alone can lead to excess calcium, which has several health implications.

Take your supplement with food

  • While you can take your supplement without food, it’s not the best way to go. Since vitamin D and K are fat soluble, making sure you get it with a meal that contains some fat is best to help it get absorbed into your bloodstream. This doesn’t have to be anything crazy, just a meal cooked in olive oil or avocado toast will do.
Vitamin D foods
(Leigh Prather – stock.adobe.com)

Bottom line

Vitamin D metabolism is a complex subject on which scientists are only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the details. We know so far that vitamin D supplements can help correct a deficiency, but it may not if supplementation is done incorrectly. If you think you may be deficient, talk to your doctor or dietitian about having a blood test and taking the next steps from there.

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