Whether you live in Los Angeles or New York, you’re probably not getting enough vitamin D, which means you could be missing out on the mind-body benefits associated with the essential nutrient.

I live in Washington state, a lush corner of the U.S. where the mountains are rugged and most foliage remains green year round. The tradeoff? It rains about half the year. A day unspoiled by clouds is a rarity from about mid-October through late spring. And while I’d never complain about Washington’s vibrant landscapes (thank you, rain!), I will argue this: I could use a little more light in my life.

Where there’s only occasional sunshine, there’s also a lack of vitamin D, an essential supplement linked to numerous benefits like a healthy immune system. As it turns out, you don’t have to live in a gloomy state like mine to be deficient in vitamin D. Many people worldwide struggle to get enough of the vitamin, and telltale signs include fatigue, bone pain, muscle weakness, and mood changes. The good news: It’s a fairly simple fix for most people. Here’s how to get more of it throughout the week and why that matters for your wellness. 

Wildflowers Close Up

Many people worldwide struggle with not getting enough of the vitamin, and telltale signs include fatigue, bone pain, muscle weakness, and mood changes. Photo courtesy of Twenty20.

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What Is Vitamin D?

Often referred to as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is actually a fat-soluble steroid hormone. It’s produced by the body through a chemical reaction when skin is exposed to sunlight (hence, the nickname) and is activated by the liver and kidneys. Of course, you can also ingest vitamin D through foods like fish, egg yolks, and fortified milk. Or, you can take it as a supplement. 

Because vitamin D receptors exist in various tissues in our body and even in neurons in parts of the brain, the vitamin can influence different areas of a person’s health — having some effect on everything from promoting healthy blood sugar levels and strengthening the immune system to supporting a healthy pregnancy. People with fair skin and those who are younger convert the vitamin more easily than those with darker skin or who are older than 50, according to the Cleveland Clinic. For that reason, a supplement could be a helpful option for some people.

Of course, vitamin D isn’t a magic pill. While the supplement has been linked to certain health outcomes, not all of them have stood up in clinical trials

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What Are Its Benefits?

Vitamin D has been associated with a host of health benefits — from cancer prevention to depression support — but not all of these claims should be taken at face value. For instance, even though our brains have vitamin D receptors in areas associated with depression — and observational studies showed a correlation between deficiency in the vitamin and depression — clinical trials have found that a vitamin D supplement had no effect on symptoms of depression, according to the National Institutes of Health.

A few areas where vitamin D could potentially make a difference — cancer prevention, bone disorders, and immune support. Observational studies, backed by evidence from clinical trials, show an association between low levels of vitamin D and an increased risk of developing cancer, according to the NIH. Still, take this with a grain of salt — studies that have explored specific cancers yielded mixed results. In other words, we need more information to determine the vitamin’s true efficacy for cancer.

Where it can help: treating inherited bone disorders and slowing bone mineral loss. And its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties can assist in supporting immune health and brain cell activity, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Sunrise Over Mountains

Observational studies, backed by evidence from clinical trials, show an association between low levels of vitamin D and an increased risk of developing cancer, according to NIH. Photo courtesy of Twenty20.

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How Can You Get More Of It?

When it comes to how much you actually need, about 600 international units (or IUs) per day is recommended for children and adults, according to the Cleveland Clinic. However, that range can extend to 4,000 IUs, depending on specific needs.

If those numbers seem high, don’t worry. You can easily absorb vitamin D three ways: through the sun, by eating certain foods, and by taking a supplement. So get outside as much as possible and introduce foods like cod liver oil, sockeye salmon, sardines, swiss cheese, swordfish, tuna, egg yolk, beef liver, and fortified milks into your diet to help ensure you’re not vitamin D deficient. And, if you’re still concerned, adding a daily vitamin D supplement to your morning routine is never a bad idea. 

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