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Vitamin D

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings dietitian Lisa McDowell has a passion for fresh, functional food and enjoys sharing her knowledge with athletes to improve performance. McDowell applies the science behind sports nutrition and translates rigorous scientific research to food and meal planning for the Red Wings. Read more in this month's Priority Health Wellness Blog below. TO VISIT THE PRIORITY HEALTH MONTHLY DIGITAL MAGAZINE, CLICK HERE.

Old English D

The challenge of vitamin D in the D

Vitamin D is activated by the UVB rays of the sun. Because Michigan ranks among the states with the lowest number of sunny days (just 100 days per year), it's hard to get enough vitamin D in Detroit. Our longitude and latitude geography places us at significant risk of vitamin D deficiency. Interesting to note, vitamin D is actually not a vitamin, because we don't need food to make it. The active form of vitamin D is actually a steroid hormone made from cholesterol and converted to the active form by the sun.

I think you can see the challenge we all face in making sure our vitamin D levels are at a healthy status. Vitamin D is so important to our players that we measure their vitamin D levels throughout the season. When the Red Wings are on road trips to warmer cities during the long winter months, we encourage them to get outside, not just to enjoy the milder weather, but also to increase their vitamin D levels.

The critical role of vitamin D for performance

Vitamin D is needed by almost every tissue and cell in our body. Without enough activated vitamin D in our body, we increase our risk for impaired muscle function, compromised bone health and immune function, risk of stress fractures and an increased overall body inflammation. Low vitamin D status is detrimental in athletes who are trying to perform at a very high level.

Research also shows a connection between vitamin D deficiency and heart disease mortality, the incidence of cancer and mortality rate and the incidence of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis. A study published in the Annals of Epidemiology reports that maintaining a sufficient vitamin D level (from 40-60 nanogram/milliliter) would prevent about 58,000 new cases of breast cancer and 49,000 of colorectal cancer each year.

Testing your vitamin D level

A simple blood test called a 25(OH)D concentration is the best way to measure vitamin D status. Talk with your physician or sports dietitian about your results. There is excellent research supporting the need to maintain higher levels in the blood. We strive to achieve a blood measurement of greater than 40 ng/mL. Peak performance is subjective, but the medical data suggests a serum Vitamin D range between 50-80 ng/mL is desired.

Food sources of vitamin D

Vitamin D is hard to get in your typical American diet. You can find vitamin D in wild-caught fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines. It is also found in cod liver oil, liver, eggs and some mushrooms like shiitakes. Farmed fish is very low in vitamin D. Additional sources include enriched foods like nut milks, cow's milk, yogurt, orange juice, breakfast cereals, butter and cheese. Getting enough from food is tough because it truly is the sunshine vitamin.

Vitamin D supplements

If you are still deficient, talk with your physician about ways to improve your status and whether a supplement is needed during the November-March period when the sun is hiding. If you do take a supplement, make sure to purchase a supplement with NSF certification to avoid any risky products. Look for the form of vitamin D3 and discuss the dose with your physician. Make sure you also consume enough vitamin K1 and K2, as well as calcium, to balance how vitamin D is processed. Because vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, any vitamin D supplement must be taken with a food source that contains fat.

Why athletes care about vitamin D

According to the Vitamin D Council, maintaining normal vitamin D levels improves performance and can make an athlete stronger, faster and better balanced. Because vitamin D is involved in preventing bone problems, mechanical injuries and improves muscle, brain and immune function, a normal level is vital to athletic performance. We know the muscles need access to the activated hormone found in vitamin D, and that is dependent on having ideal levels in the blood. It is no coincidence winter is cold and flu season because as the sunshine decreases and vitamin D levels drop, the immune system weakens.

If you look at our roster, the majority of our athletes are from Canada, Northern European countries and low sunshine states. In fact, researchers joke that all of Sweden is Vitamin D deficient! Coupled with practicing endless hours in an enclosed ice arena, most players struggle to keep up with the demand. Our athletes also have low body fat compositions, which limits the release of stored vitamin D, making it even more challenging to maintain vitamin D levels.

When it comes to our team, we want to prevent all vitamin and mineral deficiencies. It is difficult for our athletes to keep up with the dietary demands needed to fuel optimal sports performance. Calorie intakes are quite high and the players are depleting their stores on a daily basis. What is important to know is that deficiencies can be corrected if proper attention is given to this detail. Our team works hard to pay attention to the details, and looking at the whole picture of the athlete is an important part of our training plan.

Red Wings in California

When our team traveled to California, they spent time on the beach soaking up the sun and replenishing their vitamin D stores. Research has shown a deficiency can be prevented by sun exposure to the face and chest/arms for 5-30 minutes, twice a week. Interestingly, we cannot become toxic from excessive sunlight as the body has a way to inactivate vitamin D when blood levels are high enough. In fact, the Wall Street Journal featured a picture of some of the Red Wings players enjoying a volleyball game on the beach to emphasize the critical nature played by sunshine in a story they wrote about the importance of vitamin D in athletic performance. See the article here:

Which Red Wings player had the highest vitamin D level?

One final note: You may be wondering which Red Wings player had the highest Vitamin D level when we did our testing recently. It was the mighty Justin Abdelkader.

Justin Abdelkader

Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings

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