The sunshine vitamin, vitamin D, gets a lot of attention during the winter months, and for good reason. It’s hard to get enough of the sunshine vitamin when there’s no sunshine. Is your young athlete getting enough vitamin D?
If you live in the northern United States or Northern Europe, you are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency. This is because our bodies are able to make vitamin D with a little help from the UVB light from the sun. At northern latitudes during the winter, the sun is not as strong, which means it may not be helping to make that much needed D. In addition, less sunlight means less time spent outdoors. It’s a recipe for a D-disaster.
Vitamin D deficiency has been a hot topic for decades with daily intake recommendations that have increased over the years and much debate about increasing it again. Early in the research, vitamin D was thought mainly to be for bone strengthening and while this is still one of the main functions of vitamin D, there is more to this vitamin (although, technically it’s a hormone) than just bone health.
Unfortunately, most people will not see the effects of low vitamin D until levels have been deficient for a while. This makes it all the more important to get your vitamin D levels checked at least yearly to ensure you are not deficient, and if you are, that you are working to get your levels up.
For young athletes in particular, vitamin D is important for a number of reasons.
- Muscle growth and repair: Research is still inconclusive on whether or not vitamin D has an impact on performance directly, but insufficiency can indirectly affect performance. Vitamin D may help regulate muscle growth and repair. This means, it’s not all about the protein. There are so many nutrients that work together to build and repair muscle. Typically athletes between the ages of 12-18 are working, building, and repairing muscles — getting enough vitamin D, along with good nutrition, helps with growth and repair of hard working muscles.
- Immune function: Vitamin D has been shown to increase the immune response and decrease inflammation in the body. For athletes, who have a higher susceptibility to inflammation (because long and intense training can suppress the immune system), without a way to combat that rise in inflammation, that could lead to illness. Vitamin D help to strengthen the immune system, which could mean fewer illnesses, especially in the winter months.
- Bone health: For young athletes who are still growing, this is a big factor. Regardless of the type of sport, young athletes need strong bones. Vitamin D helps increase calcium absorption and in turn, works to strengthen bones, increase bone density, and help prevent stress fractures.
Dietary Sources of Vitamin D?
If your young athlete isn’t seeing the sun for any reason, you need to be concerned and get on the vitamin D train. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of foods that naturally contain vitamin D.
The most common naturally occuring sources of vitamin D are the following:
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna)
- Mushrooms that are specifically labeled as being exposed to UV light
- Egg yolks
Fortified (meaning a nutrient was added that the food would not naturally contain) sources of vitamin D are some of the best ways to get extra vitamin D in your athletes:
- Fortified milk (milk does not naturally contain vitamin D, check the label)
- Fortified orange juice
- Fortified cereal
- Fortified plant milks (soy, coconut, almond, oat, etc)
What About Supplementation?
It’s always a good idea to get a vitamin D test done before supplementing, but if you feel that your child (or you) might be low in vitamin D, give your doctor a quick call and see if they recommend a brand or dosage.
One of the most important reasons behind this is because if your child is not low, you don’t need to give any more than the RDA. However, if their test comes back and they are indeed low, the doctor may recommend a different dose. It’s never a good idea to play doctor with your kids (unless you are, in fact, a doctor).
Most children’s multivitamins contain vitamin D already, but always check the label to be sure.
Currently, the RDA is set at 600 IU per day for everyone over the age of 1 and 800 IU per day for anyone over the age of 70 (because of absorption factors/ability to synthesize vitamin D).
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism: https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/96/7/1911/2833671
Gatorade Sports Science Institute: https://www.gssiweb.org/sports-science-exchange/article/sse-148-the-importance-of-vitamin-d-for-athletes
National Institutes of Health: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/