What is vitamin D deficiency?
Vitamin D deficiency means that your body is not getting enough vitamin D to stay healthy.
Why do I need vitamin D and how do I get it?
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. Calcium is one of the main building blocks of bone. Vitamin D also has a role in your nervous, muscle, and immune systems.
You can get vitamin D in three ways: through your skin, from your diet, and from supplements. Your body forms vitamin D naturally after exposure to sunlight. But too much sun exposure can lead to skin aging and skin cancer, so many people try to get their vitamin D from other sources.
How much vitamin D do I need?
The amount of vitamin D you need each day depends on your age. The recommended amounts, in international units (IU), are:
- Birth to 12 months: 400 IU
- Children 1-13 years: 600 IU
- Teens 14-18 years: 600 IU
- Adults 19-70 years: 600 IU
- Adults 71 years and older: 800 IU
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women: 600 IU
People at high risk of vitamin D deficiency may need more. Check with your health care provider about how much you need.
What causes vitamin D deficiency?
You can become deficient in vitamin D for different reasons:
- You don't get enough vitamin D in your diet
- You don't absorb enough vitamin D from food (a malabsorption problem)
- You don't get enough exposure to sunlight
- Your liver or kidneys cannot convert vitamin D to its active form in the body
- You take medicines that interfere with your body's ability to convert or absorb vitamin D
Who is at risk of vitamin D deficiency?
Some people are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency:
- Breastfed infants, because human milk is a poor source of vitamin D. If you are breastfeeding, give your infant a supplement of 400 IU of vitamin D every day.
- Older adults, because your skin doesn't make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight as efficiently as when you were young, and your kidneys are less able to convert vitamin D to its active form.
- People with dark skin, which has less ability to produce vitamin D from the sun.
- People with conditions that make it difficult to absorb nutrients from food, such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease.
- People who have obesity, because their body fat binds to some vitamin D and prevents it from getting into the blood.
- People who have had gastric bypass surgery, a type of weight loss surgery which creates a bypass of part of the small intestine. Since vitamin D is absorbed there, bypassing part of it makes it harder to absorb enough vitamin D.
- People with chronic kidney or liver disease, which can affect your ability to change vitamin D into a form your body can use.
- People who take medicines that affect vitamin D levels, including certain cholesterol, anti-seizure, steroid, and weight-loss medicines.
Talk with your provider if you are at risk for vitamin D deficiency. There is a blood test that can measure how much vitamin D is in your body.
What problems does vitamin D deficiency cause?
Vitamin D deficiency can lead to a loss of bone density, which can contribute to osteoporosis and fractures (broken bones).
Severe vitamin D deficiency can also lead to other diseases:
- In children, it can cause rickets. Rickets is a rare disease that causes the bones to become soft and bend. African American infants and children are at higher risk of getting rickets.
- In adults, severe vitamin D deficiency leads to osteomalacia. Osteomalacia causes weak bones, bone pain, and muscle weakness.
How can I get more vitamin D?
There are a few foods that naturally have some vitamin D:
- Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
- Beef liver
- Egg yolks
You can also get vitamin D from fortified foods. You can check the food labels to find out whether a food has vitamin D. Foods that often have added vitamin D include:
- Breakfast cereals
- Orange juice
- Other dairy products, such as yogurt
- Soy drinks
Vitamin D is in many multivitamins. There are also vitamin D supplements, both in pills and in a liquid for babies.
If you have vitamin D deficiency, the treatment is with supplements. Check with your provider about how much you need to take, how often you need to take it, and how long you need to take it.
Can too much vitamin D be harmful?
Getting too much vitamin D (known as vitamin D toxicity) can be harmful. Signs of toxicity include nausea and vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, weakness, and weight loss.
Very high levels of vitamin D can damage the kidneys. It also raises the level of calcium in your blood. High levels of blood calcium (hypercalcemia) can cause confusion, kidney failure, and irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).
Most cases of vitamin D toxicity happen when someone overuses vitamin D supplements. You cannot get too much vitamin D from sun exposure because the skin limits the amount of vitamin D it makes.
- Vitamin D (Harvard School of Public Health)
- 25-hydroxy vitamin D test (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Osteomalacia (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Rickets: MedlinePlus Health Topic (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- Vitamin D (National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements) Also in Spanish
- Vitamin D Test (National Library of Medicine) Also in Spanish
- ClinicalTrials.gov: Vitamin D Deficiency (National Institutes of Health)