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Vitamin D is essential for our bone health at all stages of life. 

Insufficient levels of it can lead to brittle or misshapen bones, which translates to everything from rickets in children to osteoporosis in older adults.

Yet advice about vitamin D is polarized. To some, vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide pandemic, while others warn against the adverse effects of too much.

So if we want to keep our families and ourselves healthy, how can we make sure we’re getting the right amount? 

Find out how much of each micronutrient your child needs.

Why Is Vitamin D so Important?

Despite its name, the “sunshine vitamin” is not technically a vitamin—in fact it’s considered a hormone as it’s mostly produced directly by our bodies.

Vitamin D plays a big role in bone health because it helps increase absorption of calcium, magnesium, and phosphate. 

It’s also needed for cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function, and reduction of inflammation.

This nutrient is linked to an increase in physical strength and a reduced risk of illnesses such as cancer, clinical depression and type 1 diabetes—all things we want for our own health and that of our children.

Boy and girl playing on the beach in the sun

There are three sources of vitamin D: food, the sun and supplements

Concerns for the Ages

While vitamin D is important for everyone, there are different concerns at different lifestages.

For example, we tend to keep newborns and very young infants out of the sun as their skin is very sensitive, yet breast milk doesn’t meet all their vitamin D requirements.

99% of Hongkongers aged 18-26 aren’t getting enough vitamin D, a study by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University revealed.

On the other end of the spectrum, the elderly face a higher risk of vitamin D deficiency because aging skin cannot synthesize vitamin D as efficiently, plus they tend to spend more time indoors. 

This is dangerous because it can lead to osteoporosis, falls and fractures.

Sources of Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is rife across the world: as many as 99% of Hongkongers aged 18-26 aren’t getting enough, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University found. 

And in the U.S., the figure is closer to 40%—which is better, but still high.

We tend to keep newborns and very young infants out of the sun as their skin is very sensitive, yet breast milk doesn’t meet all their vitamin D requirements.

The reason is that’s it’s quite tough to get enough vitamin D naturally. 

Children up to 12 months need 400 international units (IU) a day; ages 1 to 70 including breastfeeding women need 600 IU; and those over 70 require 800 IU.

There are essentially three sources from where you can try and up your intake: food, the sun and supplements. 

Person eating platter of sushi in a restaurant

Fatty fish is one of the best sources of vitamin D

Food

Food is a tough one as there are very few foods that naturally contain Vitamin D. The best sources include fatty fish and fish oils. 

In smaller amounts it also appears in beef liver, cheese, egg yolks and some mushrooms. 

The Sun

Vitamin D is produced when the skin is directly exposed to ultraviolet rays from sunlight, triggering vitamin D synthesis in the body.

Depending on where in the world you live, how much time you spend outdoors, and your skin’s melanin content (how fair or dark you are), it can sometimes be difficult to get enough vitamin D from the sun too.

Specific recommendations on sun exposure vs. vitamin D intake are not easy. The Vitamin D Council is a good source of information if you want to calculate it for your own skin type.

While limited direct sun exposure is healthy, it goes without saying that you have to be careful about sunburn, as this can increase your chances for skin cancer and premature aging.

Supplements

If food and sun isn’t enough, there’s always supplementation. This can either be through fortified foods (like milk and cereals) or dietary supplements.

In Hong Kong, dietary supplements are more common from a young age as there are few vitamin-D rich or fortified foods available, and many people avoid the sun.

For babies who are exclusively breastfed, specially designed vitamin D drops can be a great option and doctors in Hong Kong will usually recommend these from birth. 

You can also seek out baby formulas that are vitamin-D fortified. 

Seek Advice

The only way to know if you or a family member has sufficient levels of vitamin D is to get a blood test.

Children, young adults, pregnant women, and elderly people all have different needs and it could be dangerous to add in a supplement without first checking with a doctor.

A vitamin D overdose could have side effects that include excessively high blood calcium levels (resulting in vomiting, nausea, fatigue, excessive thirst and urination); stomach pain, constipation or diarrhea; and even kidney failure.

As always, the June approach is to find what best works for you and your family.

A healthy mix of food, sun and supplements should do the trick—it’s also a great opportunity to think about your family’s diet and get everyone spending more time outdoors!