How can vitamin D boost athletic performance?

Vitamin D is essential for immune function, bone health, and wound healing, yet many people (including athletes) are deficient in this nutrient. While it can be obtained through diet and sunshine, supplementation may be necessary to hit athletes’ nutritional needs. Here’s how nutrition professionals can use vitamin D to help boost their clients’ athletic performance.

Vitamin D is an essential part of a healthy diet, as this important nutrient is responsible for immune and bone health, cancer prevention, and improved oxygen levels. It can be synthesized by our skin from exposure to UVB rays. However, many of us don’t get enough sunshine to make adequate vitamin D. Moreover, vitamin D is found in only a few foods, which means that many (including athletes) fall short on our daily consumption.

While everyone should meet the required daily amounts of vitamin D, it’s even more important for athletes to monitor their levels to boost sports performance and reduce the risk of injury [1]. So, how can you, as a dietitian, help your clients monitor their vitamin D levels to enhance their athleticism? Before we discuss some recommendations to help your clients, let’s explore what vitamin D is and how athletes can benefit from adequate amounts of this nutrient.

What is vitamin D?

Otherwise known as the “sunshine vitamin”, vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin produced from cholesterol when your skin is exposed to the sun. You can also obtain it through your diet as either vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) or vitamin D3. The former is present in plants and yeast, while vitamin D3 comes from animal sources (such as oily fish), and is more effective at increasing blood levels of vitamin D [2,3].

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for people between the ages of 1 and 70 is 600 IU per day. For adults over 70, the RDA is 800 IU per day [5]. However, studies show that supplementation can be used at 5,000 IU per day [6,7].

Benefits of vitamin D

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that offers a variety of health benefits, as well as anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties. While vitamin D has a positive influence on immune and musculoskeletal functions, this is especially important for athletes, as sufficient amounts can prevent possible future injuries and improve sports performance [23].

Here are some health benefits of vitamin D:

  • Increased bone strength: Vitamin D increases calcium absorption in the gut and plays an important part in maintaining bone health by regulating calcium and phosphorus. It also helps stave off osteoporosis, rickets, and other bone diseases [19].
  • Cancer prevention: Studies have shown that, when paired with calcium, vitamin D supplementation of 1,100 IU per day can reduce cancer risk by 60% [18].
  • Reduced diabetes risk: Research has found people with high amounts of vitamin D had a 78% reduced risk of developing type 1 diabetes [20].

Signs of vitamin D deficiency

Even though vitamin D is an essential nutrient, over 40% of Americans are deficient, making it one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world [4]. Here are some symptoms associated with vitamin D deficiency, all of which are important for athletic performance.

  • Muscle weakness. Low vitamin D levels have been associated with muscle weakness, negatively affecting athletes [25].
  • Fatigue. Studies have shown that low blood levels of vitamin D are associated with poor sleep quality, shorter sleep duration, delayed bedtime, as well as a general increase in fatigue [12].
  • Mood changes. Depression and anxiety are common symptoms of vitamin D deficiency, so supplementation is recommended to help stabilize mood changes [13].
  • Decreased immune health. Vitamin D plays a critical role in immune response, so a deficiency has been associated with an increased risk of infections [11].

Additionally, vitamin D deficiency can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, and impaired wound healing [10,13,14]. When working with your athletic clients, it’s important to monitor their vitamin D status, as low values could negatively impact their health and training efficiency.

Vitamin D and athletic performance

As a nutrition professional, you can help improve your clients’ athletic performance through increased levels of vitamin D. This nutrient has been shown to have a positive impact on many important biological functions, including:

Improved oxygen rate

When athletes have increased vitamin D levels, studies show a higher oxygen consumption rate, thus helping them breathe better to boost endurance levels [1].

Protect against stress fractures

Vitamin D protects against overuse injuries (such as stress fractures), as it enhances calcium metabolism, improves bone and muscle strength, and repairs muscle tissue [1,21]. Moreover, emerging evidence suggests that athletes deficient in vitamin D are at a greater risk for stress fractures and reduced muscle function [26].

Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease

When athletes have proper vitamin D levels, it enables their blood to circulate at a more effective rate, which strengthens their heart and can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease [22].

Increased strength

Research has shown that athletes who took vitamin D3 supplements saw an increase in their lean muscle mass and increased strength in the gym by 19% compared to those who didn’t supplement [24].

Nutritional support for athletic clients

With so many health benefits of vitamin D, it’s important to ensure that athletes get the nutritional support they need to enhance performance. Here are some ways to help your clients optimize their vitamin D levels.

  • Eat vitamin D-rich foods. Foods such as fatty fish, mushrooms, egg yolks, and fortified dairy and grains are rich in vitamin D, so you can incorporate these into your client’s meal plan to help increase their levels.
  • Introduce a supplement routine. Since you can only obtain vitamin D through sunlight exposure and diet, a supplement may be necessary to meet nutritional needs. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so you may have your client take this supplement with a dietary fat source (such as avocado, nuts, and seeds, or full-fat dairy products) to enhance absorption [15]. Moreover, research suggests that magnesium is essential to activate vitamin D, so supplementation with magnesium, vitamin A, K, and/or calcium may be helpful if your client’s levels are low [15,16].
  • Exposure to sunshine. Vitamin D can be obtained through sunshine; however, the use of sunscreen prevents this from being produced in the skin. It’s recommended to have 15 minutes of sunshine per day, but it’s important to remind your clients that too much sun can increase the risk of skin cancer.

Summary

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in bone health, immune support, and athletic performance. Even though it’s an essential nutrient, many people are deficient in it, which can cause several negative symptoms (such as decreased immune function, stress fractures, mood changes, and fatigue). Vitamin D deficiency can increase an athlete’s risk of injury and negatively impact their training efficiency, so it’s important to ensure that your clients get enough of this vitamin through diet, supplementation, and sunshine exposure.


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