You already know vitamin D is important for bone health, but its benefits don’t stop.
Vitamin D—nicknamed the “sunshine vitamin” due to its ability to be absorbed by the body through sunlight—is a major player in keeping the human body healthy. Its main job, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, is to promote calcium absorption, making it necessary for bone growth and bone remodeling (when mature bone tissue is removed and new bone tissue is formed). Because of that, a lack of vitamin D can lead to thin, brittle, or misshapen bones. But vitamin D offers a range of other benefits too, ranging from positives for both physical and mental health. Here are nine vitamin D benefits you need to know about—including ways to get more of the vitamin in your daily diet.
1. Vitamin D strengthens your bones
Vitamin D is famous for its bone-building and strengthening powers. “vitamin D promotes absorption of calcium in your gut, which ultimately allows for normal mineralization of your bones,” Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook, tells Health. Basically, the calcium that benefits your bones wouldn’t be able to do its job without vitamin D. “You need vitamin D for bone growth—and to prevent bones from becoming brittle.” When teamed with calcium, it can help prevent osteoporosis, a disease that signifies that the density and quality of bone are reduced, she adds.
2. Vitamin D can help strengthen muscles
Along with its bone-building abilities, vitamin D is also influential in strengthening muscles. “Lack of vitamin D in the body can increase the risk of having weak muscles, which in turn increases the risk of falls,” Lana Nasrallah, MPH, RD, clinical dietician at UNC Health, tells Health. This is especially important for the elderly. “Vitamin D may help increase muscle strength thus preventing falls, which is a common problem that leads to substantial disability and death in older adults.”
3. Vitamin D can support the immune system and fight inflammation
Dr. Nasrallah adds that vitamin D can also help build immunity. “It can support the immune system by fighting off harmful bacteria and viruses,” she says. In fact, this role in possibly preventing infections has become a critical concern during COVID-19 pandemic, as researchers are interested in its potential role in infection outcomes. “There is particular interest in its role in viral infections such as influenza and coronavirus,” Barry Boyd, MD, RDN, a Yale Medicine hematologist, oncologist, and nutritionist, tells Health. He points to a 2017 BMJ analysis of 25 randomized control trials comparing vitamin D supplements to placebos, which found that vitamin D reduced the risk of acute respiratory infection with either daily or weekly vitamin D supplementation, particularly in individuals who were deficient in it. “Studies indicate that high latitudes and winter season are risk factors for both low vitamin D, increased influenza, and other respiratory illness and adverse outcomes,” he says. “We now are seeing a similar pattern with higher mortality rates in COVID-19 infections,” though more research still needs to be done to determine whether the link is causal or merely a correlation.
4. Vitamin D can help strengthen oral health
Because vitamin D helps our body absorb calcium, it plays a crucial role in supporting oral health, lowering the risk of tooth decay and gum disease. A 2011 review in The Journal of the Tennessee Dental Association notes that while the research is scant, there’s an “emerging hypothesis” that the vitamin is beneficial for oral health, due to its effect on bone metabolism and “its ability to function as an anti-inflammatory agent and stimulate the production of anti-microbial peptides.”
5. Vitamin D can help prevent Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes
While studies are not conclusive, vitamin D may be helpful for preventing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, says Newgent. One such study, published in 2006 in the journal Diabetes Care, found that while vitamin D on its own did not effectively lower the risk of an overabundance of sugar in the blood, a combined daily intake of >1,200 mg calcium and >800 IU vitamin D could effectively lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
6. Vitamin D can help treat hypertension
According to a 2019 review published in the journal Current Protein & Peptide Science suggests that vitamin D may play a role in treatment of high blood pressure—one of the markers of cardiovascular disease—says Newgent. According to authors of the review, “even short-term vitamin D deficiency may directly raise BP [blood pressure] and promote target organ damage.” The researchers went on to add that, “due to the high correlation between vitamin D and hypertension, vitamin D supplementation therapy may be a new insight in the treatment of hypertension.”
7. Vitamin D can help you lose weight
Dr. Boyd points out that obesity is a known risk factor for low vitamin D levels—which means more vitamin D may help with weight loss. One 2009 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that, in overweight or obese women with low calcium levels, those who took a daily dose of calcium paired with vitamin D were more successful shedding pounds than those who took a placebo supplement, due to an “appetite-suppressing effect” of the combination.
Bonus one: Vitamin D can help battle depression
The sun can brighten up your mood, and so can vitamin D. According to a 2017 review article in the journal Neuropsychology, researchers found “a significant relationship between depression and vitamin D deficiency.” While they acknowledged that more research is needed to define the exact workings of it—such as, if low vitamin D levels are a cause or effect of depression—the authors recommend “screening for and treating vitamin D deficiency in subjects with depression” noting that it is an “easy, cost-effective and may improve depression outcome.”