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Arthritis Today

Vitamin D: Why We Need It, How To Get It

Learn nine easy tips to boosting your vitamin D levels.

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Vitamin D, a crucial nutrient for strong bones, is more likely to be lacking in people who take oral corticosteroids. A study by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, in New York City, found that those on steroids have a vitamin D deficiency twice as often as people who don’t take one of these medications.

Because those with arthritis are often prescribed oral steroids, it is very important to ensure that your vitamin D levels are regularly checked if you’re on these drugs.

“Vitamin D can help regulate the immune system, ward off sickness and disease and if you’re taking medication that lowers immune system defenses it can help you from getting sick as often,” says nutritionist Karen Langston, a spokesperson for the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. “Vitamin D maintains blood calcium levels and it regulates calcium and phosphorus, which keep bones and teeth hard. Studies have found that women with the highest levels of vitamin D are 30 percent less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than women with lowest level of vitamin D.”

What does vitamin D deficiency cause?

“The biggest concern is osteomalacia, or the softening of the bones,” says Langston. “In children, it’s called rickets. It also can cause brittle bones, weak muscles. Other symptoms are fractures of the hip and pelvis, bone pain and tenderness, tooth decay and hearing loss because the bones in the ear become soft.”

Langston says you may have a vitamin D deficiency if you feel pain when you press on your breastbone also called the sternum, located in the middle of your chest.

If tests show your body needs additional vitamin D, Langston recommends these painless ways to help get you back in balance:

1) Expose yourself – or even just your hands – to sunlight without sunscreen for just 10 to 15 minutes every other day. Although the amount of sunlight required has been debated, the sun activates vitamin D production in your body. So if you stand in the sunlight, sit on a bench or take a quick stroll, you’ve turned on your vitamin D switch. Keep in mind that if you have darker skin, you need more sunlight to spark vitamin D production because darker skin doesn’t absorb sunlight as well as lighter skin.  

2) Open a window. If you can’t get outside, sit by an open window or door for a few minutes, because most windows block the part of the sunlight needed to ignite vitamin D production.

3) Go fish. Many types of fish are a good source of vitamin D. Three ounces of wild salmon or Atlantic mackerel can give you the recommended daily amount of vitamin D.

4) Go raw. Raw fish has more vitamin D than its cooked counterparts, so Langston recommends sushi that contains Atlantic herring, mackerel and salmon.

5) Go retro. Remember when cod liver oil was in every medicine cabinet? Well it contains lots of vitamin D and it’s new and improved with mint and fruity flavors. One tablespoon contains as much of this strong-bone nutrient as three servings of salmon or mackerel.

6) Get fortified foods. Some foods, such as cereals, milk, cheese and soy products, have extra vitamin D added in. Read your labels to find the ones with the biggest vitamin D boost.

7) Step it up in winter. When the weather cools off and the days shorten, many people spend less time outside in the sun. Keep this in mind and try to eat more foods rich in vitamin D to compensate.

8) Get tested. Before the daylight diminishes, have your vitamin D levels checked. Langston says restoring proper vitamin D levels takes several months so it’s best to know where you stand before winter hibernation.

9) Know your meds. Read your medication labels and talk to your doctor or pharmacist, so you’ll know if any of your medicines put you at risk for developing vitamin D deficiency or other nutritional issues.

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