'Keeps us healthy:' Some ways to avoid a vitamin D deficiency in the dark of winter

MILWAUKEE -- Are you missing your daily dose of sunshine? This time of year we all struggle to get the needed vitamin D. Sarah Pierce, the medical director at Aurora Health Care, joins Real Milwaukee to talk about preventing vitamin D deficiencies.

Why do our bodies need vitamin D?
Vitamin D keeps us healthy. It gives us strong bones by getting calcium into our system, boosts our immune system, influences cell growth, can decrease asthma in kids and may even protect us from some forms of cancer. Not getting enough vitamin D leads to bone and muscle weakness, tension, headaches, and fatigue. It may also increase your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. Low vitamin D in kids can cause rickets.

Why is it important to get enough vitamin D during the winter?
Our bodies make vitamin D when we are exposed to the sun. During summer, that's easy. Our skin soaks it up. But, in winter, it's tougher. Not only is there less sunlight, but the sun also isn`t at the right angle to convert vitamin D to the active form. So, during winter, we need to get our vitamin D from other sources.

There actually aren't a lot of foods that naturally contain vitamin D. Fish is one of the best sources. Look for fatty fish like tuna and salmon. You can also find smaller amounts of vitamin D in cheese, egg yolks and liver.

Many foods are fortified with vitamin D. Milk is a great example, both cow's milk and non-dairy options like soy milk, almond milk, and oat milk. Vitamin D is added to many breakfast cereals, as well as some brands of orange juice, yogurt, and margarine. If you want to make sure what you`re buying has vitamin D in it, it`s best to check the label.

What about vitamin D supplements?
Supplements are an easy way to get your daily dose of vitamin D. Be sure to read the recommended dosages on the label because too much vitamin D can cause other health problems. You should also talk with your physician and pharmacist before taking any supplements to be sure they don`t interfere with your diet or any other medications that you might be taking.

How much vitamin D do we need every day?
How much you need depends on your age. The recommended amount is 600 international units a day for people up to 70 years old. To put that in perspective, that`s one and a half servings of salmon every day, so it`s not always easy to get that much vitamin D into your diet.

If we get vitamin D from sunlight, can we also get it through tanning? What about sun lamps?
Our bodies create vitamin D even when we`re tanning indoors, but that's not recommended. You`re exposing yourself to ultra-violet light, and those UV rays increase your risk for skin cancer. There are safer ways for you to get vitamin D.