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Are you Vitamin D-ficient?

Winter weather is just around the corner. Soon you'll be bundling up in a parka and topping it with a hat, scarf and mitts every time you're unloading.

Winter weather is just around the corner. Soon you’ll be bundling up in a parka and topping it with a hat, scarf and mitts every time you’re unloading.

This wardrobe, along with fewer sunlight hours in a frigid outdoor climate, means that for the next few months your body won’t be making much Vitamin D on its own. In Canada, this can affect your health.

Vitamin D helps the body in many different ways. It is most known for helping the body use calcium and phosphorous to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. However, it also builds the immune system, reduces inflammation, and maintains cell function.

Current research shows that adequate Vitamin D can help fight Types 1 and 2 diabetes, and some cancers (esophageal, pancreatic, colon and blood), as well as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis) and infectious diseases (tuberculosis, seasonal flu and the common cold).

Too little Vitamin D can cause calcium and phosphorus levels in the blood to decrease, which causes calcium to be pulled out of your bones to help maintain stable blood levels. This can cause rickets in children, and softening of the bones (osteomalacia) or fragile bones (osteoporosis) in adults. Be aware, that the following conditions may hinder you from absorbing whatever Vitamin D you’re getting: dark skin colour, obesity, or a physical inability to digest fats.

Certainly, Vitamin D is a unique nutrient because your body can get it two ways -either by producing it as a by-product of sun exposure, or through foods and/or dietary supplements.

The recommended daily intake for adults varies depending on the adult’s age: Up to 50 years old, 200 IU per day; 51 to 70, 400 IU; and over 70, 600 IU. Even so, the Canadian Cancer Society recommends that 1,000 IU and even 2000 IU is considered acceptable for everyone over one year old. Excessive Vitamin D may be harmful because it is stored in the body, but this rarely happens in Canada. The side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and in severe cases can also lead to kidney stones and the calcification of other soft tissues (heart, lungs and blood vessels).

Sunlight is the best source and it takes about 18 minutes of midday sun exposure every day for your body to absorb enough sunlight to produce the required amount of Vitamin D.

So, if you don’t want a severe case of frostbite around Christmas, how can you get enough Vitamin D in winter? You probably won’t get enough by eating more, since only these few foods are good sources of Vitamin D: fortified dairy products and breakfast cereals, and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna.

For this reason, around 80% of Canadians are low in Vitamin D during the winter. The Boston School of Medicine recently found that “healthy adults in the winter can barely raise their Vitamin D blood levels to what’s considered healthy even when they eat fish once a week, take a multivitamin and drink a glass of milk every day.”

Don’t be discouraged. Just supplement your healthy diet with a concentrated form of Vitamin D, such as cod liver oil or another supplement. Certainly, be sure to read the label of the supplemental Vitamin D you choose because there are two types: ergocalciferol and cholecalciferol. Of these, cholecalciferol can be easily absorbed by your body; ergocalciferol cannot.

Even so, certain health conditions (cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, intestinal bypass surgery, epilepsy medication) may prevent your body from effectively absorbing Vitamin D from foods or supplements; consequently, it would be good to consider other options.

You could produce Vitamin D from artificial sunlight. One option is to use a tanning bed with medium-pressure lamps that generate UVB rays. As you know, many health experts are against going to tanning salons because of the risk of skin cancer. Yet, in the wintertime you can boost your Vitamin D level with little risk if the tanning bed puts out UVB from medium-pressure lamps only. (High-pressure lamps only put out UVA, which do not produce Vitamin D). UVB rays do not cause burns or even much of a tan, but do produce lots of Vitamin D.

Another option is to use a Sperti Lamp. This lamp has been sanctioned by the US Federal Drug Administration as a viable Vitamin D producer, saying “they work very well for patients who have malabsorption syndrome.” (Unfortunately, the special lights used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder won’t help your body produce Vitamin D because they don’t emit UVB rays).

As a Canadian driver, you know that winter conditions can really affect your trip. They also impact your health. This season, boost your Vitamin D intake while you dream of next summer’s sun, when you won’t need to boost it any more.

-Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant , and she can be reached at

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