One of the best ways to support your bone, muscle and immune health is to rely on the power of vitamin D. But how do we get the so-called sunshine vitamin? What’s the best source of vitamin D? It turns out that there’s more than one way to get your daily allowance of this key nutrient. While some methods, like taking a vitamin D supplement and eating recommended food sources, may seem like common sense, it might be surprising to learn that getting a little sunlight exposure can also do the trick. Keep reading to find out the best sources of vitamin D to help keep your bones, muscles and immune system healthy. Also, if you would like to learn more about supplementation or our immune health support packs, take our vitamin quiz!†
What is vitamin D, and what does it do?
When you receive the recommended amount of vitamin D, it supports muscle and immune function. This vitamin also works with calcium to build and maintain healthy bones, which is important in both adults and children. As a result, you want to make sure you’re getting enough of this nutrient to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. If you are wondering “how much vitamin D is too much?” or “how much vitamin D should I take?” then check out our blog for additional information.†
What’s the right amount of vitamin D?
The amount of vitamin D that you need each day depends on your age. For bone health, experts recommend that adults between the ages of 19 and 71 get 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D every day. For people 71 and over, this amount increases to 800 IU to support bone health.1
If you want to make sure you’re getting the optimal dose of vitamin D to cover all health benefits, you’ll want to aim for 1500-2000 IU of the sunshine vitamin each day.2† However, you may have different needs, so always consult with your healthcare provider.
How do we get vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a unique nutrient because there are several different ways that we can get it. Not only can you get it through food sources (both in naturally rich vitamin D sources and fortified foods) and dietary supplements, but you can also take it in through sunlight exposure.
Foods naturally containing vitamin D
If you want to get your vitamin D from food sources, it’s important to know that only a few foods naturally contain it. Fatty fish, such as mackerel, tuna, salmon and trout, and cod liver oil are some of the best natural sources of vitamin D (not to mention, great sources of omega 3 fatty acids). The diet of these fish causes them to have higher amounts of vitamin D in their tissues, which benefits us when they end up on our plates.
Other natural vitamin D foods include beef liver, cheese and egg yolk, which contain small amounts of this nutrient, primarily in the form of vitamin D3. Mushrooms can also be a source of this vital vitamin, as they can contain vitamin D2. Some mushrooms on the market may even contain higher vitamin levels, thanks to UV light treatment.1
Foods fortified with vitamin D
As Americans, fortified foods provide most of the vitamin D in our diets. And cow’s milk is one of the most common fortified sources of vitamin D. In fact, almost all of the milk in the United States has been fortified with about 120 IU of vitamin D3.1
If you’re not a fan of milk or you are lactose intolerant, there are still plenty of fortified foods that can help you get your recommended dietary allowance of vitamin D. Plant milk alternatives, such as oat, almond and soy milk, tend to be fortified with similar amounts of vitamin D that can be found in fortified milk from a cow. Fortified breakfast cereals and orange juice can also be excellent ways to increase your daily intake of vitamin D.
Vitamin D from sun exposure
In addition to getting this nutrient from food sources, many people also rely on sunlight to meet their daily vitamin D intake requirements. A specific type of radiation from the sun, known as UVB rays, does something very cool. It’s able to penetrate the skin and help your body produce vitamin D3.
Different factors influence how effective this process is, including the time of day, the presence of clouds, sunscreen usage, age and skin color. For example, older adults and people with darker skin tend to have more difficulty producing vitamin D from sunlight.
While everyone is different, experts suggest that we all get 15 to 30 minutes of sun exposure per day (without sunscreen). This exposure needs to occur outside because UVB radiation cannot come through the glass in the windows.1
Vitamin D supplementation
Research shows that 95% of people are not getting enough vitamin D from the sun or from their diet.3 Read our blog to learn about vitamin D and other nutrients. If you’re worried you aren’t getting enough vitamin D from your diet or sunlight exposure, you can incorporate a dietary supplement. Just like taking a calcium supplement every day, you can also take a vitamin D supplement. However, just as the name suggests, this is meant to supplement your diet.†
When you’re looking at vitamin D supplements, you’ll notice that some contain vitamin D2 and others contain vitamin D3. The body processes and metabolizes these two vitamins almost the same way. However, research shows that vitamin D3 increases the levels of the sunshine vitamin to a greater extent and maintains them longer than vitamin D2 does.1
The type of vitamin D isn’t the only thing that varies when it comes to supplements. So does the dosage. You’ll routinely find 400 IU (10 mcg), 1000 IU (25 mcg) and 2000 IU (50 mcg) on the market. Higher dosages, like 5000 IU (125 mcg), are also available.
Most people do not receive the recommended daily dose of vitamin D. To ensure you are getting the right amount of this important nutrient every day, consult with your health care provider about sources and supplementation options. Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin after all!
Holick M.F., et al. Evaluation, treatment, and prevention of vitamin D deficiency: An Endocrine Society clinical practice guideline. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 2011;96:1911–1930. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21646368/
Corrie became a nutritional nerd the second she learned about trans fats in college. Ever since then, she’s been trying to figure out easy life hacks for staying healthy without making her entire world about workouts and kale. She’s dedicated the last few years of her career to writing fun, educational content to help make good nutrition a little less boring and a little more accessible to non-scientists like herself. When she’s not scrolling through new research on gut health, you can find her playing Magic the Gathering or tending to her many (somehow still living) plants.
Carroll is a nutrition scientist and communicator with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, researcher, and educator at major universities, medical centers, and nutrition industry settings. She is a passionate advocate of nutritional health and established the nutrition education and science platforms at Pharmavite. Carroll is an expert in personalized nutrition and has published several scientific papers on vitamin and mineral inadequacies and the impact on health and wellbeing. Prior to joining Pharmavite, Carroll taught nutrition at UCLA Medical School and Santa Monica College and was a chief clinical dietitian and researcher.