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Medically Approved

3 ways to avoid vitamin D deficiency during winter

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SupplementsFoodsSpending time outdoorsMedicationSpeaking with a doctorSummary
Cold weather and shorter days can mean you spend less time outside, which may cause your vitamin D levels to drop. Here are several ways you can help boost your levels.
Medically reviewed by Adam Bernstein, MD, ScD
Updated on January 23, 2024

Vitamin D has an important role in regulating mood. This vitamin also helps your body absorb phosphorus and calcium, keeping your bones strong. Low vitamin D levels can lead to symptoms such as bone and muscle pain.

Your body produces vitamin D during exposure to sunlight. This can be more challenging in winter as fewer hours of sunlight and cold weather may prevent you from going outdoors.

Several methods may help boost your vitamin D levels during winter. They include:

1. Taking supplements

Vitamin D supplements are a popular and relatively low cost way to increase your vitamin D intake. They are available in tablet form that you can take every day. Many multivitamin and mineral supplements typically contain vitamin D, and you can get them over the counter.

If you take supplements, consider having them with a meal or snack containing some fat.

Too much vitamin D can be harmful and could result in hypercalcemia, a condition that occurs when there’s too much calcium in your blood. Hypercalcemia can cause symptoms such as:

  • nausea
  • muscle weakness
  • confusion
  • kidney stones
  • dehydration

Vitamin D supplements can also interact with certain medications, such as cholesterol-lowering statins and steroids. Speak with a doctor before starting any new supplementation. They can decide whether vitamin D supplements are safe for you and recommend the appropriate dosage.

2. Food sources of vitamin D

Including foods in your diet that are rich in vitamin D can help you reach your daily recommended intake.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends the following daily dietary allowances for Vitamin D for both males and females:

AgeRecommended daily intake
0-12 months10 micrograms (mcg) (400 IU)
1–70 years15 mcg (600 IU)
71 years and over20 mcg (800 IU)

While very few foods are naturally good sources of vitamin D, many manufacturers fortify their products, like cereals and milk, with vitamin D. This means vitamins are added to the food to increase its nutritional value.

The foods that can help increase your vitamin D levels may include:

  • oily fish, like salmon and mackerel
  • dairy products like cheese, milk, and yogurt
  • beef liver
  • fortified orange juice
  • egg yolks
  • fortified cereals
  • fortified plant-based drinks

Mushrooms are one of the few plants and types of food that, similar to humans, naturally produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Exposing mushrooms to sunlight or UV lamps before consuming them can stimulate their production of vitamins D2, D3, and D4.

A doctor or registered dietitian can provide a dietary plan to help you meet your recommended daily vitamin D intake.

3. Spending time outdoors

Female wearing a winter hat and coat stood outside to depict ways you get vitamin D during winter.
Maksim Tarasov/Stocksy United

Your body can produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. This is because your skin absorbs the UV rays and converts them into a substance called pre-vitamin D3, which is then converted into vitamin D. Your body can produce vitamin D even if only a small portion of your skin has direct exposure to the sunlight.

You may not be able to increase your vitamin D levels with food alone, so lifestyle measures such as spending time outdoors — even when it’s cold — can significantly boost your vitamin D production. Sunlight is typically more effective in increasing vitamin D levels than taking supplements or eating vitamin D-rich foods.

However, UV radiation can be harmful to your health. It’s important to wear sunscreen protection, even during the winter, to protect your skin and reduce the risk of developing skin cancer.

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What medications can help?

If you develop vitamin D deficiency, a doctor may recommend vitamin D medications to improve your vitamin D levels. Two commonly available vitamin D medications include ergocalciferol (vitamin D2) and cholecalciferol (vitamin D3).

A doctor can recommend the most appropriate treatment for vitamin D deficiency.

If you need help covering the cost of medications, the free Optum Perks Discount Card could help you save up to 80% on prescription drugs. Follow the links on drug names for savings on that medication, or search for a specific drug here.

When to speak with a doctor

If you develop any symptoms of vitamin D deficiency, particularly during the winter, consider speaking with a doctor. They can check your vitamin D levels and recommend the most appropriate treatment.

The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency may include:

  • bone pain
  • muscle and joint pain
  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • muscle twitching

Summary

Vitamin D deficiency is common during the winter as sunlight is the main source of vitamin D. However, there are some steps you can take to help improve your vitamin D levels.

Eating a diet full of vitamin D-rich foods, such as mushrooms and oily fish, and taking vitamin D supplementation can help increase your vitamin D levels. However, meeting your vitamin D goal may not be possible with food alone, so lifestyle measures such as spending more time outdoors can help.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.

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