How Much Vitamin D Should You Take? Probably More Than You Think
Vitamin D is a hot topic, and not just because it's associated with the sun. Really, though, cheesy jokes aside, one major reason everyone is talking about the sunshine vitamin these days is that a whopping 93% of us1 aren't getting enough of it through natural food sources alone—and considering the essential nutrient is vital to immunity, bone health, muscle function, mood, and more,* that's a pretty big problem.
Since we can't rely on food to get our vitamin D to where it needs to be, and trying to score enough of the sunshine vitamin from the actual sun is—ironically—a complicated, caveat-riddled can of worms in and of itself (and a topic for another day), that leaves us with one tried-and-true route to healthy vitamin D status: supplements.*
Which, of course, is a big topic itself! Undoubtedly, you've got questions. How much vitamin D should you take? And what type of supplement should you go for when there are so many options? Don't stress; we've got the answers you're looking for.
What is vitamin D—and what's all the fuss about?
Vitamin D is classified as a fat-soluble vitamin, but it's unique in that it's also a preprohormone2 (which means it's a precursor to a prohormone, which is a precursor to an active hormone) and a really important one, at that. "There are binding sites for [vitamin D] on nearly every cell in the body," integrative dietitian Whitney Crouch, RDN, CLT, tells mbg. "Vitamin D3 plays a role in calcium absorption and balance, bone mineralization, immune function, cardiovascular health, and more."*
Vitamin D also plays a crucial role in thyroid function and supports a healthy pregnancy.* (Learn more about those important jobs in our guide to all things vitamin D).
So, what are the ideal levels of vitamin D?
Here's where things get a little tricky. While a serum level of 30 ng/ml3 is often considered the minimum cutoff for "normal" vitamin D status, that number really describes the bare minimum for not being at direct risk of true deficiency, which is defined as 20 ng/ml3 or less. In other words, 30 ng/ml is a cutoff for vitamin D insufficiency that you don't want to teeter around.
In fact, many experts and an ever-growing body of research agree that you need to keep your levels significantly higher than this to keep your body healthy and feel your best.
"This is the bare minimum level to avoid issues known to occur with vitamin D deficiency, including suboptimal bone and thyroid health," explains board-certified endocrinologist Brittany Henderson, M.D., who specializes in hormones in her clinical practice. "Higher levels of serum 25(OH)D [the biomarker for vitamin D status] have consistently been associated with healthy mood, optimal immune function, and more."*
For that reason, Henderson typically targets blood levels of at least 50 ng/ml—and she's far from alone in that.
But, as Crouch points out, "every human has different genes, biochemistry, and skin color. One person's optimal level is not another person's, to a degree." Working with your health care practitioner to understand and monitor your individual vitamin D needs is always a good idea.
How common is vitamin D deficiency?
Despite the nutrient's importance, vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency are incredibly common. Right now, around 29% of U.S. adults are considered straight-up vitamin D deficient4 (again, that means a level of less than 20 ng/ml), while 41% are vitamin D insufficient4 (below 30 mg/ml).
Part of the problem is that most people who are either deficient or toeing the line of deficiency don't have any obvious signs and only find out that their levels are low because of routine blood screenings done by their doctor, Henderson tells mbg. When physical indications of deficiency do develop, they may include low mood, brain fog, and poor immune function. Not a pretty picture.
So you really can't get enough vitamin D from diet and sun?
We know, we know, this can be pretty hard to wrap your brain around—but you really can't depend on food and time spent outside to keep your vitamin D status in a healthy place (a daily, lifelong endeavor).
While there are a few dietary sources of vitamin D (some natural, more fortified), we still can't typically get enough of it from our diets. "Unless you are eating sardines, salmon, or mackerel daily, there is a good chance your food is vitamin D insufficient," explains Henderson.
And when it comes to the sun? There are some concerns here, too. Crouch points out that UV exposure and subsequent vitamin D production changes with the seasons, the latitude you're located at, your skin color, the amount of skin you have exposed, and the amount of time you spend in the sun. Your ability to produce vitamin D from sun exposure is also largely dependent on your age and decreases dramatically after the age of 50, adds Henderson.
Of course, there's also the issue of sun overexposure. If you spend too much time outside unprotected or end up with a sunburn, it can ultimately do more harm than good. So, what's the solution? A high-quality vitamin D supplement.*
How much vitamin D should you take, then?
Now that we've got that out of the way, you're probably wondering how much vitamin D you should take in supplement form.
Before you even worry about dose, make sure your supplement contains vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), which is significantly more (up to 87% more5, to be exact) effective at raising and maintaining vitamin D levels in the body than vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol).*
From there, research6 has demonstrated that supplementing with 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 raises the average adult's serum D level by approximately 10 ng/ml, which means it takes 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day to raise your level to that goal of 50 ng/ml.*
In some cases of significant deficiency, though, it may take up to 10,000 IU (or higher) of vitamin D3 daily to meet the mark,* Henderson says. Heck, according to Crouch, even a couple of months at 50,000 IU per week may be necessary to correct a major deficiency.*
Another special circumstance to consider here: Overweight adults or those with obesity have vitamin D needs that are two to three times higher3 than those with a normal weight, so working with a health care provider to regularly monitor your vitamin D status and supplement regimen can ensure you truly get the amount of the nutrient you need to feel your best.*
Once you've got your optimal supplement amount nailed down, note that its "packaging" is also crucial to how much vitamin D your body actually absorbs. "Vitamin D is fat-soluble and, thus, better absorbed when administered in a fatty packaging,"* Henderson tells mbg. "So, we typically recommend forms of vitamin D3 that are more highly bioavailable, meaning that they are packaged along with oils or fats."* If your supplement isn't formulated with healthy fats (like the organic trio of oils you'll find in mbg's vitamin D3 potency+), make sure to take it with a meal that contains healthy fats, like avocado, olive oil, and/or nuts and seeds.
The bottom line.
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient, but the vast majority of people regularly fall short because it's so difficult to get from food and the sun alone. To offset this problem, a high-quality vitamin D supplement is recommended for most people.* While the specific amount you need depends on your current vitamin D status—as well as other personal health factors—the general consensus is that 5,000 IU of D3 is the sweet spot for most people.* When in doubt, though, talk to your doctor about what's right for you.
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.