What is it?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin found in certain foods, including vitamin D-fortified milk or soy beverage, salmon, mackerel, sardines and egg yolk. It is known as the sunshine vitamin because it’s made in your body when bare skin is exposed to ultraviolet light.
What does it do?
It’s well known that vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium from food to help build and maintain strong bones. But new research indicates it does much more. “Vitamin D plays a role in immune function and disease prevention, including heart disease, multiple sclerosis and several forms of cancer,” explains Aileen Burford-Mason, a Toronto-based nutrition consultant with a special interest in women’s nutrition before and during pregnancy. “Vitamin D also plays an important role in pregnancy and childhood health.”
According to Burford-Mason, low blood levels of vitamin D put pregnant women at higher risk of developing life-threatening pre-eclampsia, and insulin resistance — a precursor to gestational diabetes. In children, rickets is the well-known result of vitamin D deficiency. But recently, asthma, leukemia and type 1 diabetes have also been linked to children of mothers who were vitamin D deficient during pregnancy or to children who do not consume enough of the vitamin in infancy, she says.
What causes deficiency?
Certain people are more at risk for vitamin D deficiency.
Darker-skinned people, those who completely cover their skin with clothing or sunscreen when outdoors, and those living in northern climates may not receive enough sun exposure to create enough of the vitamin. People who do not consume enough vitamin D-rich food, or who do not absorb fat well, are also at risk for deficiency. And exclusively breastfed infants do not obtain recommended levels of vitamin D from breastmilk alone.
How much do you need?
Currently, Health Canada recommends that people aged two to 50, including pregnant women, consume 200 IU (international units) of vitamin D daily (the equivalent of two cups of milk). This is sufficient to prevent rickets; however, many scientists now believe a higher intake is needed for optimal health.
The Canadian Paediatric Society recently released a statement recommending that pregnant or breastfeeding women talk to their doctor about taking a supplement of 2000 IU a day, which Health Canada says is the tolerable upper intake level of vitamin D daily.
The CPS also recommends all exclusively breastfed babies receive a supplement of 400 IU daily, and that babies in the North (above 55 degrees latitude) and babies at risk of vitamin D deficiency get twice that amount from October to April.
“The weight of evidence suggests vitamin D is critically important for pregnant and nursing mothers and their babies,” explains Burford-Mason. “We should waste no time in acting on this exciting new research.”
One new supplement on the market is Baby Ddrops 400 IU — vitamin D dissolved in an odourless and tasteless oil naturally present in breastmilk. Like any nutrient, vitamin D is best absorbed with food, or when breastfeeding. One tiny drop of vitamin D can be placed on your nipple before feeding or on a pacifier after your baby drinks. For children and adults there are Ddrops 400 IU or 1,000 IU per drop.