Tiredness was the first symptom for Adam Rogers. Stamina had never been a problem until he joined Kansas City Ballet. Within a few months Rogers started to drag and have aches in parts of his body that never hurt before. A visit to a doctor revealed the problem: low levels of vitamin D.
Rogers soon realized why. “Once I joined the company I was in the studio all day,” he says. “I also dieted drastically.” The combination was a recipe for vitamin D deficiency. The body has only a few ways to absorb the vitamin: either through exposure to sunlight, through supplements, or by eating vitamin D-rich foods.
Yet dancers have a critical need for vitamin D. Getting enough not only keeps their bodies energized and ache-free during rehearsals, but also helps to prevent injuries. Vitamin D assists the body in calcium absorption; too little of it can lead to a calcium deficiency. “You need D to absorb the calcium, not the other way around,” says Peggy Swistak, a nutritionist for Pacific Northwest Ballet. Calcium plays an essential role in building bone mass and healing fractures. The constant stress a dancer puts on her body makes strong bones and quick bone regeneration essential. Too little vitamin D can impede calcium absorption, which in turn can cause bones to become brittle, leading to frequent fractures and slower healing. D also has been linked to a variety of other benefits, like boosting the body’s immune system, reducing inflammation, and lowering risks of certain cancers, including breast cancer.
The easiest way to prevent D deficiency is through brief daily exposure to sunlight. “The body self-regulates the D we get from the sun, so you can never build up unhealthy levels,” says Swistak. Just 15 minutes outdoors with your arms and legs exposed—and no sunscreen—will yield enough vitamin D to avoid problems. But dancers in northern latitudes in winter may not get enough ultra-violet exposure from 15-minute intervals. And those dancers stuck all day in the studio can find this one of the hardest ways to get their minimum daily requirement even in the height of summer.
Medical professionals recommend 200 IU’s each day for people under 50, but recent research indicates more may be needed. “Most vitamin D experts believe that the current recommendations are too low,” says Roberta Anding, dietician and nutrition consultant to Houston Ballet. “Many recommend over 1000 IU daily.”
Eating smart can help to avoid or correct any imbalance. Fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon have ample D. Another good source is cod liver oil. Today, almost all milk in the U.S. comes fortified with vitamin D, and one 8 oz. glass delivers 25 percent of daily needs. Many foods like breakfast cereals and yogurts have been fortified with vitamin D as well. Three servings a day of yogurt, for instance, would cover the minimum daily requirement. Nearly all orange or grapefruit juice now also comes D fortified. A yogurt, a container of juice, or a baggie of cereal make great on-the-go snacks between rehearsals.
If none of those foods appeal, most multivitamins have enough vitamin D for daily needs. “The majority of calcium supplements also contain vitamin D, so dancers would be getting an adequate amount just from that,” adds Swistak. But since D is a fat-soluble vitamin, you need some fat in your daily diet to make sure D gets absorbed if you take it in supplement form. That means making a point of including healthy fats like olive and canola oil in your meals, easily done if you use them, say, in a salad dressing. The omega-3 fats in fish like salmon also provide enough fat to help absorb D.
How can you tell if you have a D deficiency? Bone pain and muscle weakness are two major symptoms, but they can often be subtle or easily confused with a dancer’s everyday soreness. Low levels of vitamin D also contribute to osteoporosis. If you have persisting symptoms that make you think you might have a deficiency, see a doctor.
If you do develop a deficiency, usually a little effort will correct it. “I make sure to balance my meals, pack D-fortified snacks, and take my multivitamins every day,” says Rogers. “I even try to sneak outside between classes for some sun. Just by making an effort to get adequate amounts made my pain stop within a few weeks. Now,” he says, “I can concentrate more on my dancing.”
Natalie Caamano is a nutritionist and dance teacher.