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The most popular prescription in March: Vitamin D

Lauren Steele writer headshot By | March 9, 2020
Medically reviewed by Karen Berger, Pharm.D.

In March, vitamin D shows up in the top 10 medications filled through SingleCare, driven by an increase in prescriptions. This supplement accounts for 7.31% of all prescriptions for the month, according to SingleCare data.

A little background: Vitamin D is an important nutrient. Your body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight, which is why many people are diagnosed with a deficiency of vitamin D in winter months. However, you also get vitamin D from certain foods, such as mushrooms, egg yolks, canned tuna, salmon, pickled herring, and canned sardines, as well as supplements.

Vitamin D is necessary for optimal overall health and for maintaining strong bones, according to the National Institutes of Health. It helps the body absorb calcium (one of the skeletal system’s main building blocks) from food and supplements. People who get too little vitamin D may develop soft, thin, and brittle bones, a condition known as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.

Why do prescriptions for vitamin D spike in March?

Well, it’s a combination of factors. Research shows that 10 minutes a day of exposure to 10% of your body’s surface area, such as your arms and face, will generate enough vitamin D for white people living in northern latitudes. For those with darker skin and more melanin, the time requirement is a little longer (about 25 minutes). For people who live closer to the equator, the time requirement is shorter. But for those living in North America, it’s much harder to get enough UVB to make the vitamin D your body needs once October hits (and the days start getting much drearier and shorter). 

The sun stays lower in the sky, for less of the day. People have much less skin exposed when they are bundled up in fall and winter clothes. Meaning, your body produces less vitamin D and must rely on the vitamin D that’s stored in your liver and fatty tissues. Over the winter months, this reserve gradually decreases—and reaches its lowest point in March.

Research confirms that natural vitamin D levels peak in September and are at their lowest in March—which explains the spike in vitamin D prescriptions in March. Vitamin D prescriptions are most popular when vitamin D levels are naturally at their lowest and blood tests are most likely to detect a vitamin D deficiency. 

RELATED: When would I need a prescription for vitamin D?

Why do you need vitamin D?

There are plenty of health risks associated with a vitamin D deficiency. “Vitamin D receptors are found in muscle, and population studies show a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and falls,” Inna Lukyanovsky, Pharm.D., explains. “Although low vitamin D levels have been associated with fractures, falls, diabetes, cardiovascular events, cancer, and depression, not all studies have shown an association, and for some conditions, both high and low levels have been associated with illness.”

So why not just sit out in the sun for a few extra hours or get a UV sun lamp? Well, because of skin cancer concerns. “Because of the concerns about sun exposure and skin cancer risk, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends avoiding sunlight, and getting vitamin D from food or supplements [instead],” Dr. Lukyanovsky says.

And to be honest, few natural foods contain vitamin D. The fortification of foods and beverages with vitamin D was introduced in the 1920s and 1930s to prevent rickets. A wide variety of foods were fortified with vitamin D, such as Schlitz Sunshine Vitamin D beer, which entered the market in 1936. These fortifications have incrementally fallen by the wayside, but do still exist. Cow’s milk, soy milk, orange juice, cereal, and oatmeal are still fortified with vitamin D. But that sometimes still isn’t enough to get the daily recommended amount of vitamin D in winter. That’s where supplements come in. 

RELATED: How much vitamin D should I take?

How to get vitamin D in winter

If you are experiencing symptoms of vitamin D deficiency—including bone pain, muscle weakness, fatigue, and even depression—get in touch with a medical professional and consider supplementation. You aren’t the only one, and it’s easily treatable. (When you’re talking to your healthcare provider, ask if you should take calcium as well—it’s also important for bone health.) Vitamin D supplements can be purchased over the counter, but your insurance may only cover your costs if you have a prescription for a prescription strength version. The prescription strength vitamin D (50,000 units) is generally taken once a week. You can also use SingleCare coupons to save on your vitamin D as OTC and prescription. 

The recommended daily intake of vitamin D is 400 to 800 international units (IU), but you may need a higher dose of vitamin D in the winter. Combine a vitamin D-rich diet with supplements to get your fair share of this important nutrient.