Why Vitamin D Intake Is Crucial for Supporting Brain Health and Cognition As You Age, According to a Neurologist and a Dietitian

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Vitamin D has been linked to everything from better heart health and bone strength to a stronger immune system, but new research has found yet another reason for us to focus on upping our intake: cognitive functioning.

The study, published in Environmental Research and Public Health, found that increasing levels of vitamin D in women was associated with better cognition and, in both men and women, it was associated with better attention span. While it might surprise some that a vitamin that so many are deficient in is enormously critical for maintaining optimal brain health, those in the field are not surprised.

“We’ve long recognized an important relationship between lower levels of vitamin D and a remarkably increased risk for a variety of challenging brain issues such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, autism, and even migraine headaches,” says David Perlmutter, MD a neurologist and author of Drop Acid. “Generally, these studies characterize a significant increase in risk for these brain health issues when vitamin D levels are quite low, and ultimately reveal mechanisms that seek to explain the relationship.” Dr. Perlmutter goes on to explain that previous research has shown that vitamin D is a nurturing nutrient for brain cells, keeping neurons healthy and functional. Studies have also shown that vitamin D acts as an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory agent, and that it helps ensure that the brain is able to use energy effectively.

According to Dr. Perlmutter, the implications of this recent study (and those that have come before it) that link higher vitamin D levels with optimal brain health and cognitive functioning as we age are not to be underestimated. “In the United States, actual deficiency of vitamin D affects 40 percent of adults on average, but it disproportionately impacts 82 percent of Black people and 69 percent of Latinx communities,” says Dr. Perlmutter. “That means that a massive part of our population is missing out on the brain benefits offered up by vitamin D. So whether it’s by consuming vitamin D-rich foods like fatty fish, checking with your doctor about supplementation, or even through mild sun exposure, as far as brain health and function are concerned, vitamin D levels deserve our attention.”

How much vitamin D do we need?

As a general recommendation, Dr. Perlmutter notes that a level—measured via a simple blood test—between 60 and 90 nM/L represents an easily achieved target and would be enough to optimize brain health. While consistently loading your plate with vitamin D-rich foods is a great idea for most people, it's important to get your vitamin D levels checked by your physician, especially if you think you will need a supplement. “This is because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which is not easily excreted by the body; if consumed in excess amounts from supplements, this could potentially lead to toxicity,” says Lon Ben-Asher, MS, RD, LDN with Pritikin Longevity Center.

In the meantime, you can start to meal plan around upping your vitamin D intake. While not many foods naturally contain vitamin D, the ones that do are among the healthiest. “Six ounces of salmon provides approx 800 IU, while four ounces of sardines provides approx 350 IU. Just make sure to look for no- or low-sodium sardine options if you’re opting for canned sardines,” says Ben-Asher. “One cup of mushrooms provides approx 20 IU, six ounces of fortified yogurt provides approx 80 to 120 IU, and a cup of fortified milk provides approx 100 to 120 IU. And all of these options make for delicious, nutrient-dense additions to most diets.”

You can also spend more time outdoors. "According to research, approximately 20 minutes of sunshine daily with over 40 percent of skin exposed is required to prevent deficiency," Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD previously told Well+Good. (Yes, still wear sunscreen.) Additionally, Beckerman notes that vitamin D and calcium work better together, so make sure you're getting plenty of calcium-rich foods in your meals as well. "Without enough vitamin D, it's nearly impossible to soak up all the calcium your body needs," she says.

Find more recommendations for vitamin D-rich foods from Beckerman in this video:

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