Nutrient deficiency diseases are a rare thing in the United States. We have an abundant food supply in our country, and although we may have nutrient inadequacies, true deficiency diseases don’t occur very often any more. For example, you don’t ever hear about someone in the United States developing scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) or beriberi (vitamin B1 deficiency).

More and more, however, we are hearing about vitamin D deficiency.

In fact, it has almost become an epidemic, especially in the northern latitudes of the United States and Canada.

Very few foods in nature provide vitamin D. This is because our bodies make their own vitamin D from exposure to sunshine. The best food sources are fatty fish and fish oils. Beef liver, cheese and egg yolks contain some, but not nearly enough to meet our daily needs. Milk is usually fortified with vitamin D, but it doesn’t occur naturally in milk.

We need vitamin D because it helps our body absorb calcium in order to maintain strong bones and teeth. It also helps to maintain a healthy immune system, reduces inflammation, and maintains muscle tissue. Deficiencies can cause osteoporosis, and scientists are now linking deficiencies with periodontitis, fibromyalgia, muscle weakness, higher risk for prostate and breast cancer, and age-related macular degeneration.

We require 600 IU of vitamin D each day up through age 70. After 70, the requirement goes up to 800 IU — that’s because as we age our bodies don’t synthesize vitamin D as well. So how can you assure you’re getting enough to meet your needs?

The best and simplest way is to get outside in the sunshine on a regular basis. Because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, and can be stored in the body for a long period of time, it only takes a little bit of sunshine during the spring and summer to stock up for the whole year.

All it takes is 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure at least two times per week to the face, arms and hands during the spring and summer, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to make all the vitamin D we need. That sounds pretty simple, right? But if you wear sunscreen your skin can’t make vitamin D. If you have dark skin or live north of Atlanta, you won’t synthesize vitamin D as efficiently. We don’t make much vitamin D when it’s cloudy out or from sun that is filtered through windows.

So it may very well be possible that you’re not making enough vitamin D to meet your needs. The best way to know is through a simple blood test. When you go to the doctor each year for your annual physical, ask for a vitamin D test along with your other routine labs. If you’re low, your doctor will probably recommend a supplement to take until your blood levels normalize.

Some experts recommend a routine supplement of 1,000 IU year-round for people who are older, have dark skin, don’t go outside often, or always wear sunscreen or clothing that covers most of their skin.

Factors that reduce vitamin D synthesis:

• Age

• Dark skin

• Clouds

• Sunscreen

• Clothing

• Windows

• Northern latitudes*

• Wintertime*

• Early morning sun exposure*

• Late afternoon sun exposure*

* Due to the angle of the sun’s rays

Susie Bond is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist with Health First Pro-Health & Fitness Center. Contact her at susie.bond @health-first.org.