Long known as the “bone vitamin” for its role in helping to form strong bones, a steady stream of new research is uncovering benefits of vitamin D in the growing body. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), getting adequate vitamin D has been linked to improved health and possibly reduced risk of developing some diseases later in life. Research continues in various areas such as immune health, heart disease, skin health, and diabetes.
Based on the increased awareness of vitamin D’s benefits, the United States Department of Agriculture recently increased its daily recommendation of vitamin D to 400 IU a day for children ages 0–12 months and 600 IU a day for children ages 1–13 years.
How does vitamin D work?
Vitamin D is fat-soluble, meaning that it dissolves in fat instead of water and can be stored in the body. It’s a unique vitamin in the sense that it acts like a hormone in some cases, leading experts to refer to it as a “prohormone.” Because of its unique structure and function, vitamin D has been shown to have receptors throughout the body which could impact a surprisingly wide range of health factors. The most well-documented role of vitamin D is assisting in calcium metabolism, which benefits bone growth and maintenance.
Other areas that are less conclusive but still topics of vitamin D research include the role in:
- Insulin production and blood sugar metabolism and therefore the impact on diabetes.
- A healthy circulatory system and influence on heart disease.
- Brain health, including depression and other mental disorders.
- Supporting a healthy immune system, allowing the body to fight infections.
Getting enough vitamin D
Vitamin D is manufactured in the skin in response to exposure to sunlight. This process is extremely fast—it only takes a few minutes of sun exposure to make a tremendous amount of vitamin D. However, because of concerns over sun exposure, many children do not receive enough direct sunlight to get adequate vitamin D. Similarly, vitamin D is hard to get from diet alone. It is present in small amounts in fatty fish, as well as liver, cheese, and egg yolks. In 2012, the AAP identified a “startling increase” in the frequency of severe vitamin D deficiency.
In addition to safe sun exposure, many children receive their vitamin D from supplements or fortified foods. Milk and infant formula are both fortified with vitamin D; milk has about 100 IU per cup, meaning a child would have to drink 4-6 cups of milk daily to receive his or her recommended dose. Breast milk is a poor source of vitamin D, so the AAP recommends all breastfed babies receive supplemental vitamin D beginning in the first few days of life.
Vitamin D is available as a dietary supplement, usually as a gel cap or liquid drops. The drops, which are available over the counter, are perfect for infants and smaller children because they are easy to administer and can be combined with liquids. Talk to your pediatrician and follow the dosing instructions on the package to ensure your child is receiving adequate vitamin D.