Parents can’t win. Dermatologists tell them to keep their kids out of the sun or slather them with sunscreen to prevent skin cancer later in life. But now scientists say that an astonishing number of children are deficient in vitamin D, in part because they are not getting enough sunshine on their skin.
A new study in Pediatrics (online, Aug. 3, 2009) shows that 9 percent of the 6,275 children tested had vitamin D deficiency. That translates to over 7 million American youngsters. Equally alarming, the researchers project that roughly 50 million children have inadequate levels of vitamin D.
The consequences could be devastating. Children in this sample who had low vitamin D levels had higher blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. This could set them up for heart disease later in life. In addition, low vitamin D is linked to weak bones, diabetes, cancer and other diseases.
Children used to play outside in the summer. These days they are more likely to spend time in air-conditioned comfort in front of a computer. If they do go outside to swim or play a sport, they probably wear a high SPF sunscreen that blocks vitamin D formation.
A multivitamin is unlikely to supply all the vitamin D a growing child would get from sun exposure. In fact, the recommended daily intake for children was recently doubled from 200 International Units to 400 IU. The study in the journal Pediatrics showed that only 4 percent of the children were taking supplements with that amount of vitamin D.
Kids aren’t the only ones who are low in vitamin D these days. There is a growing realization that many adults are also deficient in this crucial nutrient. Research suggests that up to half the population have low vitamin D levels (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Dec. 9, 2008).
This epidemic of vitamin deficiency could be contributing to a host of serious health problems, from diabetes and heart disease to cancer and osteoporosis.
It may also be contributing to arthritis and muscle pain, especially for people who are taking statin-type cholesterol-lowering medicine (Clinical Endocrinology, July, 2009). Researchers suspect that many of the people who are complaining about muscle and joint pain while taking drugs like Crestor, Lipitor or simvastatin (Zocor) might be low in vitamin D.
Another reason to be concerned about low levels of vitamin D is the coming flu season. Public health officials are worried about the potential pandemic of H1N1 influenza. Vitamin D deficiency appears to make many people more susceptible to the flu.
People who get 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure at one time can convert that into at least 10,000 International Units of vitamin D. In the winter, a supplement of 2,000 IUs daily will provide most people with adequate amounts of vitamin D.
For more information about the dangers of vitamin D deficiency and how to treat it, we offer a one-hour podcast of our radio interview with vitamin D experts, Drs. Michael Holick and James Dowd. Show #672 is available for $2.99 at
Perhaps it’s time for parents to take their kids outside to play. Not only will the children benefit, but the parents may reap health dividends themselves.

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  1. VC

    My daughter is a college athlete, on the cross country and track teams. As such, she spends a lot of time outdoors all year round. Should she still take a vitamin D3 supplement? If so, how much per day? Thanks for any advice you can offer!

  2. IHM

    I had my yearly physical not long ago and my Dr. told me I was the first person she had tested here in the NW (Washington State) who was NOT deficient in Vitamin D. I was born and raised in Iceland and have kept my childhood habit of taking Cod liver oil every day (they come in little capsules now) I’m 60 years old, I have no heart problems, low blood pressure and I know my general good health is due to the cod liver oil. (Icelandic)
    I’m careful with any exposure to the sun since I have extremely pale and sensitive skin so I use SPF lotions and creams every day, at least 35.

  3. jac

    I own a tanning salon and have a host of customers, age 40+ including many medical personnel, who tan a few minutes a week, to keep a healthy vit d level. I am convinced UNDER exposure to UV is more harmful to one’s health than overexposure. Your body uses 100% of the Vit D produced by UV exposure; not so with supplements. Furthermore, the elderly and obese can take many months to raise a low VitD level.
    I tan a few minutes as week, as well as my husband and older teens, to keep our immune system healthy. THAT is NOT overexposure; it’s the ONLY exposure we get, especially in the winter, and it is VITAL to good health.

  4. Russ1a

    Hi PJ,
    Did you Doc tell you that your body would use at least 4000IU/Day (from all sources) if it could get it? If you are overweight, you will need even more. What is your 25(OH)D level? How much are you taking to catch up? Enough, I hope.
    Sincerely, Russ

  5. PJ

    My Dr. told me that she was now testing all her patients for Vitamin D levels. I was confident that mine was fine. I drink three glasses of milk a day, plus a cup of fortified juice and a daily multi-vitamin to equal 900 total. I have always been a big milk drinker and eaten a well balanced diet. I was shocked when my blood test showed me to be deficient in vitamin D. If it could happen to me it could happen to anyone.

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