By residing in the Rio Grande Valley, one may think that there isn’t any risk of vitamin D deficiency. This is the vitamin that our body produces when exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Surprisingly, many of us may be at risk.

One of the risk groups for vitamin D deficiency are those of darker skin complexion due to the skin’s higher melanin content that protects against sun exposure. And, apparently, the older we are, the more we need vitamin D because the body loses some capability of producing it. Obese adults and anyone with limited sun exposure are included in the higher risk category.

Additionally, individuals who have difficulty absorbing fat such as with liver diseases, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and cystic fibrosis are vulnerable to deficiencies. The liver and kidney are essential for storing and processing Vitamin D.

Why is vitamin D so important? Further studies have uncovered more health benefits than previously found. In addition to vitamin D being essential for building strong bones, it also helps reduce the risk of other diseases such as cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease.

The Mayo Clinic’s Web site reports the following results:

Fall prevention: With age, decreasing muscle strength can increase the risk of falls and bone fractures. Several studies have found that vitamin D supplements may benefit muscle strength and balance, helping older adults stay steadier on their feet.

Cancer prevention: Observational research indicates that low levels of vitamin D increase the risk of some cancers — including those of the breast, colon, rectum, ovary, kidney, lung and uterus. Although unclear why, vitamin D in adequate amounts appears to help regulate cellular growth, potentially preventing cells from becoming cancerous.

Chronic pain prevention: Vitamin D deficiency is increasingly recognized as an important cause of muscle pain and weakness.

Protection against autoimmune diseases: Evidence is mounting that vitamin D may offer protection from type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis by reducing inflammation and strengthening the immune system. In one study, researchers found a 40 percent lower risk of multiple sclerosis in women who supplemented their diet each day with at least 400 international units (IU) of vitamin D.

Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease: Some research indicates that lower vitamin D levels are associated with a number of factors that affect cardiovascular health, including coronary artery calcification and, possibly, congestive heart failure.

So, how much vitamin D should you supplement? The answer varies depending on the source. For example, the National Academies of Sciences recommends 200 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day for children and adults up to age 50 and 400 to 600 IU for adults older than age 50. But the Mayo Clinic’s website recommends taking a range of 800 to 1,000 IU for most adults. Their website states, “The body produces vitamin D when exposed to ultraviolet rays, but many people need a supplement to reach recommended levels. Many multivitamins contain vitamin D. This nutrient also can be purchased alone or combined with calcium.”

Vitamin D includes vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Vitamin D2 is synthesized by plants while vitamin D3 is synthesized by humans through our skin when exposed to the ultraviolet B rays from sunlight. Spending as little as ten minutes a day helps prevent deficiencies for some, while others in the higher risk groups may need more. Common sense of course dictates that when outdoors, sun exposure should be limited to the non-peak hours to prevent sunburn and skin cancer. Keeping arms and legs uncovered and without sunscreen during this limited duration will maximize Vitamin D absorption.

Vitamin D2 and D3 can be obtained from food sources such as salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, sardines, eggs, fortified milk, some fortified cereals, and cod liver oil. With that said, Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest warns, “You’d have to eat an awful lot of herrings to make your quota”. So enjoy some sunshine, supplement and eat some vitamin D enriched foods!

For more information, go to www.mayoclinic.org/news. The Mayo Clinic is the first and largest integrated, not-for-profit group practice in the world. More than 3,300 physicians, scientists and researchers and 46,000 allied health staff work at three sites located in Rochester, Minn., Jacksonville, Fla., and Scottsdale/Phoenix, Ariz. Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource is published monthly to help women enjoy healthier, more productive lives.

To subscribe, call 800-876-8633, extension 9PK1, or visit www.bookstore.mayoclinic.com.

Mary Garza Cummings is a free-lance writer. The Town Crier does not warrant the information as valid. It is the responsibility of the reader to ensure validity of the information. If you have questions or comments, email askseniorfocus@aol.com