For adequate bone health, your blood level of vitamin D should be at least 20 ng/ml, a level that would protect at least 97.5 percent of the population against adverse skeletal effects, such as fractures, and ensure healthy bones. Inadequate intakes are diagnosed when levels dip well below 20.
"Doctors are using what clinical labs define as deficient," notes Patsy Brannon, Ph.D., R.D., a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University and a member of the IOM panel. "We have people getting lab values back at 29, being diagnosed as insufficient, and being given extremely high doses for fairly long periods of time. You could easily wind up with blood levels approaching 50 ng/ml."
Adding to the challenge of interpreting your results are these factors:
- Vitamin D levels change with the seasons, exposure to sunlight, and dietary intake.
- There is no standardization of vitamin D tests, which means results can differ from one lab to another.
If you decide to be tested, ask whether it will be done in-house or sent to a reference lab, where the volume of tests can be much higher and the accuracy probably better. "Tests like vitamin D are mostly manual and are prone to shifts and bias, which are only observed if one performs at least more than 50 a day," says Ravinder Singh, Ph.D., co-director of the endocrine lab at the Mayo Clinic.
If the results of your test are abnormal or unexpected, you should be retested. If you are found to be deficient, your doctor will probably recommend an oral dose of 50,000 IU of vitamin D once a week for 8 to 12 weeks. After that, maintenance might require 400 to 800 IU depending on your diet. In general, for every 100 IU of vitamin D you take in, there is an increase of roughly 1 ng/ml in the blood level of vitamin D.
Bottom line. Advice can change as studies are completed. "The intakes are not set in stone," says Clifford Rosen, M.D., of the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough and a member of the IOM Committee. "If you want a kind of insurance policy in case we find a positive effect later, supplementation is not harmful at low doses."
Until research confirms the benefit of higher doses, stick with the IOM's recommendation: 600 IU for adults up to age 70 and 800 IU for those older than 70. Look for a vitamin D product with the "USP Verified" mark, which means it meets standards of quality, purity, and potency set by the nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopeia. For better absorption of the vitamin, take it with a meal containing some fat. Good food sources of vitamin D include cod-liver oil, cooked button mushrooms, eggs, fortified milk and soy products, mackerel, sardines, and wild Alaskan or sockeye salmon.
If you get some midday sun exposure during the warmer months and regularly consume vitamin D-rich foods, you probably don't need supplements. People who are middle-aged or otherwise at risk of vitamin D deficiency, including those who are overweight or have darker skin, might need supplements. Even then, the amount in most multivitamins is probably enough.