Vitamin D: Are You Taking More Than is Good for You?

The results of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical  Association last week found that about 3 percent of adults in the U.S. are taking more than 4,000 international units (IUs) (IU - is a unit of measurement) of Vitamin D a day, an amount beyond the upper limit considered safe. This is up from 0.2 percent 10 years ago. The recommended daily amount of Vitamin D is 600 IUs for adults under 70 and 800 IUs for those 70 and older.

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Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin. We need it to absorb calcium from our intestines, to maintain calcium and phosphorus balance for bone health, and for proper immune system, nervous system and muscle function.  We make it when our skin is exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun. We also get it from the foods we eat and the supplements we take.

We need between 600-800 IUs of vitamin D a day from all sources. However, as the results of this study show, more of us than ever are taking amounts in excess of what may be safe. Yes, taking vitamins in excess can be hazardous to our health. Think of vitamins like you would aspirin or acetaminophen. If you have a head ache, you take two tablets. You wouldn’t take 10 tablets figuring if two stops the pain, 10 will do it better – yet some of us are doing just that with vitamin D.

According to the National Institutes of Health, Office on Dietary Supplements, (NIH-ODS) long term (three months or more) vitamin D intake greater than 4,000 IU a day, can have a negative effect on health. When intakes rise above 10,000 IU a day, there is a greater risk of some cancers  particularly cancer of the pancreas, greater risk of heart attack, and greater risk of fractures among older adults. When intake goes beyond 40,000 IU a day, it can result in toxicity which causes high calcium levels in the blood, or hypercalcemia. Hypercalcemia can weaken bones, affect nerve, heart and brain function and cause kidney stones. The risk of toxicity occurs with high intakes from supplements and food. It does not happen with vitamin D produced in bodies from sun exposure.

Knowing that the recommended daily amount is between 600 – 800 IU, from all sources (food, supplements and sunlight), talk with your health care provider before taking quantities above the recommended amounts. If you’ve been taking vitamin D supplements, talk to your health care provider about having your vitamin D blood levels tested to see if you really need as much as you’re taking. If you are taking any of the following prescription medications - prednisone or cortisone, cholesterol lowering drugs or seizure medications - make sure your health care provider knows you are taking vitamin D supplements. Some of these interact with vitamin D.

Use the chart below from the NIH-ODS to re-evaluate your intake of supplements in light of the amount of vitamin D you’re getting in your diet.



IUs per serving*

Percent DV**

Cod liver oil, 1 tablespoon



Swordfish, cooked, 3 ounces



Salmon (sockeye), cooked, 3 ounces



Tuna fish, canned in water, drained, 3 ounces



Orange juice fortified with vitamin D, 1 cup (check product labels, as amount of added vitamin D varies)



Milk, nonfat, reduced fat, and whole, vitamin D-fortified, 1 cup



Yogurt, fortified with 20% of the DV for vitamin D, 6 ounces (more heavily fortified yogurts provide more of the DV)



Margarine, fortified, 1 tablespoon



Sardines, canned in oil, drained, 2 sardines



Liver, beef, cooked, 3 ounces



Egg, 1 large (vitamin D is found in yolk)



Ready-to-eat cereal, fortified with 10% of the DV for vitamin D, 0.75-1 cup (more heavily fortified cereals might provide more of the DV)



Cheese, Swiss, 1 ounce



* IUs = International Units.
** DV = Daily Value. DVs were developed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help consumers compare the nutrient contents among products within the context of a total daily diet.

For more information see:

Vitamin D Council


National Institutes of Health – Office of Dietary Supplements
Vitamin D Fact Sheet

Joanna Hayden, PhD, CHES is the principal of Associates for Health Education and Behavior, LLC, in Sparta, a practice focused on improving health through education. Her office offers individual and group health education, and individual health behavior change guidance.  For more information please see  To contact Dr. Hayden, email her

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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