My mother lives with me, and I'm involved in her medical care. She's a tough cookie. But like many 88-year-olds, she has several health problems. We visit her doctor at least once a month to report what's working and what isn't doing the trick. Recently the doctor ordered blood work that showed she was low in vitamin D. So now I've added vitamin D tablets to her daily medication regime.
In the summer our bodies produce vitamin D when sunlight strikes our skin. But during the dark winter months, that source of vitamin D dries up. Vitamin D is in fortified milk (and some OJ) but my mama is living proof not everyone gets enough vitamin D from their diet.
Vitamin D is important in its own right in terms of what it does for us. But as a sideline, it helps us absorb calcium. As we age, getting more calcium to where it's needed in the body can help us avoid osteoporosis. For that reason alone, it's worth talking to your health care provider about vitamin D levels.
If you don't like the thought of taking pills, there are foods that are good sources of vitamin D. The Mayo Clinic website recommends eggs, milk, fish and cod liver oil. (The thought of downing spoonfuls of cod liver oil makes taking pills seem like a pretty good deal - but maybe that's just me.)
In extreme cases of low vitamin D, rickets can result. Rickets is a softening and a weakening of bones. My poor mother had rickets when she was a kid in the early 1930s. It's quite possible the milk she drank back in the day wasn't fortified with vitamin D. But you can experience some degree of vitamin D deficiency without developing rickets.
You may be at higher risk for vitamin D problems if you are obese, elderly or you don't get much sun exposure. People with inflammatory bowel disease are also more likely to have low levels of vitamin D.
According to the WebMD website, sufficient vitamin D can potentially help lower your blood pressure, as well as lowering your risk of diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and even such major maladies as multiple sclerosis.
Taking vitamins sometimes seems like a fad idea, and anything can be done to excess. There are also some ins and outs about different types of vitamin D, as well as the importance of complementing it with calcium intake. I would say it's worth talking to your medical provider, not just trying to treat yourself blindly. Once you are at your doc's office, a simple blood draw can determine if you are low in vitamin D.
I'm glad my mother's doctor tested her for vitamin D levels. I've now scheduled my own blood draw appointment for the same simple check. Like mother, like child?
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.