When it comes to good health, there’s one D that is vital to your health — vitamin D. It helps our body absorb and use calcium to build and maintain bones and teeth, and interacts with our immune system, muscle and nerves to maintain our health.

As we age, our risk of osteoporosis (bone thinning) increases because we decrease our ingestion of milk and other foods fortified with calcium and vitamin D. But, our bodies provide us with vitamin D by producing it when our skin is exposed to ultraviolet light (vitamin D is called the “Sunshine” vitamin). We are fortunate to live in Arizona, as we are blessed with more than adequate sunshine year-round. Our relatives in Northern climes may not be able to produce vitamin D during the cloudy winter months when they’re either sitting inside or are outdoors bundled up with very little skin exposure. Fortunately, these folks should be fine during the winter as long as they maintain a good diet, which brings us to vitamin D content and supplementation of food, and the use of multivitamin tablets.

When considering taking vitamin D to supplement your diet, be sure to include calcium-containing foods, use current guidelines for recommended dietary allowance and read the labels. For most adults, at least 600 IUs (International Units) of vitamin D each day will maintain bone health. Those age 70 and older need as much as 800 IUs daily. Foods, of course, are excellent sources of vitamin D. A serving of cold water fish (only 3 ounces of salmon or tuna) may have 300-400 IUs, and foods fortified with vitamin D, such as cereals and milk (milk or fortified orange juice, can provide 100 IUs per cup).

Women have recognized that during perimenopause and menopause there may be accelerated bone loss leading to the risk of osteoporosis. Combine this with aging, decreased vitamin D and calcium intake and decreased estrogen production, and the stage is set for osteoporosis. Interestingly, in the last 20 years, studies have demonstrated that men had a decrease in their levels of vitamin D, while women have shown no decline. This is probably due to women heeding the dietary recommendations and increasing their use of calcium and vitamin D supplementation.

Now, about that sunshine.  Skin types (dark skin vs. fair), aging, smog, cloud cover, use of sunscreens, as well as the risks of sun exposure, make it next to impossible to reassure someone that he or she will safely produce sufficient vitamin D. Instead, it is recommended that you limit your sun exposure, without sunscreen, to your face, arms back and legs for 5-10 minutes, twice a week between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.  But, remember that the sun’s rays can damage skin and cause skin cancer. Beware of thinking that if a little is good for you, a lot may be better, as that is surely not the case.

If you’re healthy, eat a well-balanced diet and spend at least a little time outdoors each week, you’re probably just fine. If you have questions, be sure to talk to your doctor about vitamin D and calcium supplements before you begin taking any because too much of anything can be harmful.