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Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for optimal health and wellness. This imperative nutrient is essential in many bodily functions—such as maintaining a strong immune system, healthy brain function, and stable blood sugar.
Vitamin D is a nutrient you need on a daily basis to keep your health in check, between 400–600 IU per day, depending on your age. Because it is a nutrient that is not found in a wide selection of foods, learning what to do to increase your vitamin D intake—including what to eat to be sure you are getting enough vitamin D—is important. Vitamin D intake also allows for calcium to be absorbed in the body, which is crucial for good health.
Today there is a growing rate of vitamin D deficiency across the U.S. (and beyond). Research shows approximately 40 percent of Americans are suffering from this swelling epidemic with a greater prevalence in African Americans and Hispanic people. Consequently, there is a rise in negative health outcomes stemming from vitamin D insufficiency, such as “cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and bone fractures.”
The Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D is often referred to as the sunshine vitamin because it is the only vitamin-like substance that is synthesized on your skin with exposure to sunlight. Research shows important mechanisms and variables in synthesizing vitamin D: When you are exposed to sunlight, your skin absorbs the UVB radiation, which is then converted into pre-vitamin D, and then converted in the body to vitamin D3.
The synthesis of vitamin D from sunlight is directly dependent on the season, time of day, latitude, altitude, skin health, air pollution, sunscreen use, and aging. Beware, relying solely on sunshine can be tricky when considering all of the varying elements—especially since you should also avoid too much sunlight as there is a higher risk of skin cancer with overexposure to sunshine.
While there are many recommendations on how to monitor sun exposure for optimal vitamin D assimilation, you need to give some thought to safely sunning yourself. While many health care providers recommend between 5 and 30 minutes of sun exposure a few times per week, according to the National Institutes of Health, there are no reputable studies looking at whether sun exposure-induced vitamin D synthesis “can occur without increased risk of skin cancer.”
Fortunately, there are options to consider—aside from sunshine—to keep your vitamin D levels sufficient.
What Foods Have Vitamin D?
With the challenges involved with sun exposure, it is a good idea to find some food sources of vitamin D to ensure your vitamin D levels adequate. Although there are not a lot of foods with vitamin D, the following five sources can be enjoyed in a variety of ways to help you meet your daily requirements.
Known for their delicious umami flavor, mushrooms have been validated for their many health benefits and as medicinal culinary delicacies for centuries. Often considered a vegetable, mushrooms are actually a fungus and are known for their high nutrient values including vitamin D, which is hard to find in the plant-based world. Mushrooms provide a rich source of ergosterol, which when exposed to UV light is converted to vitamin D.
Since there are a variety of mushrooms to choose from, there is also a range of vitamin D density among the many types of mushrooms. One study looked at many of the variables involved in promoting rich vitamin D levels in mushrooms. The results showed examples of wild mushrooms (such as chanterelle and shitake) measuring 3–30 μg D2/100 g compared to more common button mushrooms at less than 1 μg D2/100 g (Americans should aim for between 15–20 μg).
The same study also looked at imposing factors such as sunlight, UV radiation from lamps, and how the mushrooms are stored after harvesting. The research concluded that more exposure to natural sunlight and UV light—as well as choosing the wilder varieties of mushrooms, such as chanterelle, shitake, or oyster mushrooms —provided a higher source of vitamin D. When eating wild mushrooms, to get an optimal dose of vitamin D. Estimate about 10 ug of vitamin D per 100 mg of fresh mushrooms.
How to enjoy: Try a simple sauté of wild mushrooms with ghee, salt, and a little fresh garlic. Add wild mushrooms to a scramble, omelet, or quiche, or slice and throw into a soup or stew. For a quick and easy boost, try some of the trendy wild mushroom coffees or teas—such as mitake, cordyceps, or lion’s mane—found at local health food stores.
2. Egg Yolks
How do you most enjoy your eggs? Whether scrambled, fried, over easy, poached, or made into a delicious omelet, frittata, or anything in between, eggs are an easy-to-find food that can be eaten in a variety of ways.
One whole large egg yolk has about 37 IU of vitamin D. Buying organic, free-range animal products is always a smart way to support your health and the natural food industry. Subsequently, buying pasture-raised eggs—eggs from chickens that have grown up free-range and able to wander in the farmer's pasture and enjoy a higher quality of life—will ensure you are getting the highest level of nutrients, especially vitamin D.
When chickens are free to roam in the pastures, exposing themselves and their eggs to an ample amount of natural sunlight, their egg yolks have more vitamin D. One study showed the vitamin D density in pasture-raised eggs to be upwards of three to four times higher than conventional cage-raised chicken eggs. This study, administered by the Institute of Agricultural and Nutritional Sciences in Germany, concluded that free-range farming is a natural and efficient alternative to fortifying eggs with higher levels of vitamin D.
How to enjoy: Eggs are a great way to boost the vitamin D content of your baking. Or include them in one-pot meals such as fried rice, vegetable souffle, ramen, or quiche.
3. Fatty Fish
Many of the richest sources of vitamin D come from fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, and tuna. Many people have increased their fish intake to boost other fat-soluble nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acid levels. With this added bounty of supportive nutrients, fatty fish may be a helpful addition to your diet for improved vitamin D levels, too. For example, three ounces of canned salmon contains 17.9 ug of vitamin D as compared to three ounces of rainbow trout at 16.2 ug and swordfish at 14.1 ug of vitamin D.
How to enjoy: From a simple and popular grilled salmon or fish tacos to more worldly and traditional fish soups and stews, or even the simple (and easily portable) canned sardines eaten off of your favorite cracker, fish can be eaten a variety of ways.
4. Cod Liver Oil
While cod liver oil does come directly from fish, it is such a potent source of vitamin D that is more concentrated than eating an average serving of fish. Consequently, cod liver oil deserves a separate mention. Including cod liver oil in your daily supplement regimen can ensure daily recommended doses of vitamin D. Not only is cod liver oil high in omega-3 fatty acids, you can also get a hefty dose of vitamin D (at 21803 IU of vitamin D per one cup of cod liver oil) with one teaspoon of cod liver oil providing 113 percent of the recommended dietary allowance.
How to enjoy: Choosing a smooth and tasty cod liver oil is important. Once you find a brand you like there are many ways to include cod liver oil in your diet:
- Mix it into a shot of juice.
- Follow it with a chaser as a full-flavored taste to cleanse your palate.
- Rub it onto your skin.
- Take cod liver oil capsules.
- Mix it into a full-flavored smoothie.
- Add it to your homemade salad dressings or sauces.
5. Fortified Foods
Since natural food sources of vitamin D are limited, there are many foods that have been fortified with it. Some common fortified foods are dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals. While these choices are not nearly as vitamin D dense as natural sources of vitamin D, they are good options to explore if you are trying to amend or prevent a vitamin D deficiency.
One study reviewed several other studies (known as a meta-analysis), looking at the effectiveness of the most common vitamin D-fortified foods and dairy products—and the impact these foods had on vitamin D levels of those who increased their intake. The results concluded across a wide range of studies that the vitamin D was bioavailable (able to be assimilated in the body with an active effect) and, in fact, in one of the included studies, fortified foods raised the vitamin D levels of the participants (in some cases up to 75 percent) compared to a decrease in vitamin D in the control group.
How to enjoy: Look for fortified dairy products—dairy-free milks such as soy, cereals, and orange juice—and be sure to include a few of them in your regular daily diet.
Add a Vitamin D Supplement
Many of the above options could suffice for your intake of vitamin D, but you may not be a fan. You may need vitamin D supplements.
Vitamin D supplements are widely available and can be helpful, especially if you are starting out with a deficiency in vitamin D or if you live in a place where the winter months are long and dark. Start with a blood test to assess your levels and, as always, consult with your doctor or health care practitioner regarding a vitamin D supplement.
Vitamin D is surely a nutrient to keep on your radar. Eating a diet abundant in vitamin D foods and potentially supplementing with a vitamin D supplement are all important considerations to prevent a deficiency and safeguard a healthy and strong life where you feel your best.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs
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