Back to Top Skip to main content Skip to sub-navigation

For a good grade on bone health, aim for D – vitamin D

An Army trainee at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, gets a bone density scan as part of a study with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Massachusetts, that's aimed at reducing musculoskeletal injuries. (Courtesy photo) An Army trainee at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, gets a bone density scan as part of a study with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Massachusetts, that's aimed at reducing musculoskeletal injuries. (Courtesy photo)

Recommended Content:

Women's Health

Vitamin D is essential to building and maintaining strong bones, health experts say. Yet so many Americans – women, in particular -- aren't getting enough of it that in a report to the secretaries of the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee called vitamin D a "shortfall nutrient … of public health concern."

"Vitamin D is required for calcium absorption, and calcium is one of the major minerals in the bone," said Erin Gaffney-Stomberg, a research physiologist and principal investigator formerly at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, or USARIEM, in Natick, Massachusetts.

"So if you don't have adequate vitamin D status, your calcium absorption will be impaired," said Gaffney-Stomberg, now at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center's Combat Feeding Directorate, in Natick.

In adults, severe vitamin D deficiency may lead to fragile, soft, and misshapen bones, a condition called osteomalacia. Osteoporosis is a disease in which the density and quality of bones are reduced over time. More than 80 percent of the 10 million Americans who have osteoporosis are women, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.

Women are more affected because they typically have smaller, thinner, and less-dense bones than men, said Joanne Porwoll, a nurse practitioner in endocrinology at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia. Other risk factors for osteoporosis include smoking, and drinking more than three alcoholic beverages daily.

Lifestyle changes can lower the risk for osteoporosis, Porwoll said. Those changes include doing weight-bearing activities, and ensuring there's enough vitamin D in the diet. Porwoll said people with the highest risk of having a vitamin D deficiency include those who live or work in environments with minimal sun exposure, have darker skin pigmentation, have health disorders that affect gut absorption of nutrients, or who take medications that affect the metabolism of vitamin D.

"Vitamin D really is unique because it can actually be made in our bodies," Gaffney-Stomberg said. She explained that in response to sunlight, a form of cholesterol in the skin is transformed into vitamin D. But exposing unprotected skin to the sun has health risks, the American Cancer Society warns.

People also can get vitamin D through foods, including fatty fishes such as salmon and mackerel, and dairy products and cereals that have been fortified with vitamin D. However, studies have found that people generally have a very poor intake of vitamin D from food sources.

Gaffney-Stomberg cited a study of soldiers in initial Army training that found 70 percent of the women consumed less than a third of recommended levels of vitamin D. For men, the figure was 55 percent. These statistics are similar to those found in the civilian population, she said.

Decreased bone mass at any age can lead to an increased risk of fracture. That's what led Gaffney-Stomberg and other USARIEM researchers to collaborate with the Combat Feeding Directorate to develop a food item called the Performance Readiness Bar. The PRB is a supplemental snack bar fortified with vitamin D and calcium to support bone health. The aim is for Army recruits to consume the bar to prevent stress fractures.

"Stress fractures are one of the most common injuries during initial Army training," Gaffney-Stomberg said. "Trainees are 18 times more likely to sustain a stress fracture compared to active-duty service members, and women have a four times greater risk than men."

The PRB is a result of research that showed Army recruits who consumed two bars containing calcium and vitamin D every day during basic training experienced greater increases in bone density compared to those who ate a placebo bar, Gaffney-Stomberg said.

She added that a four-year study of 4,000 recruits is underway by scientists at USARIEM to understand the risk factors associated with stress fractures in recruits and the extent to which the PRB makes a difference.

Porwoll suggests Military Health System beneficiaries talk with their primary care providers about whether they should take vitamin D supplements. She noted that some calcium supplements also contain vitamin D, and too much vitamin D can be harmful. The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, Office of Dietary Supplements provides recommended dietary allowances.

While vitamin D previously had been thought to lower the risk of some types of cancer, a large clinical trial by the NIH's National Cancer Institute recently concluded there was no link. When it comes to good bone health, however, there's no dispute about the benefit of vitamin D.

You also may be interested in...

Run Toward the Fire: My journey through mental illness

Military personnel posing with their children

Air Force Lt. Col. details her struggle with depression, anxiety and suicide ideation

Recommended Content:

Mental Health and Total Force Fitness | Women's Health Month | Women's Health

Service women: Plan for your future health care now

Graphic that has images of different women with the words "women's health transition training"

The online, self-paced Women’s Health Transition Training makes everything you need to know about VA women’s health services available anytime, anyplace.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health Month | Women's Health

Navy Pediatrician Rises from Humble Beginnings to Make History

Miliary health personnel wearing face mask bumping elbows

Navy Capt. (Dr.) Lynelle Boamah confidently stands with feet firmly planted atop two recent significant months.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | African American History Month

BAMC Women's History Month honors women past and present

Three military personnel, wearing masks, standing on a stage and holding an award

Women will always play a critical role within our military.

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness & Prevention Toolkit | April | Women's Health

Women leaders say military health care offers limitless opportunities

Military personnel speaking through a microphone

Women military health leaders speak on way toward equity and limitless opportunities.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Brain Injury Awareness Toolkit | Brain Injury Awareness Toolkit

Paving the way for women in military medicine: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Old picture of Dr. Mary Edwards wearing her Medal of Honor

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker’s persistence and disregard for societal norms was central to the role that women can play in the DOD and MHS today.

Recommended Content:

Military Medical History | Military Health Medal of Honor Recipients | Women's Health

Historic observance celebrates the achievements of women

A flyer of three women in three separate pictures smiling

The DHA held a virtual observance—featuring a panel discussion on women’s history— in honor of Women’s History Month.

Recommended Content:

Brain Injury Awareness Toolkit | Brain Injury Awareness Toolkit | Women's Health

DHA implements standard practices to improve maternal outcomes

Military health personnel wearing face mask during medical training

DHA-PI 6025.35 provides guidance for implementation of a postpartum hemorrhage bundle at all MTFs providing obstetrical care.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Clinical Improvement Priorities for MTF Providers

Decide + Be Ready: supporting today’s modern service woman

Picture of three different women with the words "decide and be ready mobile app"

New women’s app ‘Decide + Be Ready’, helps today’s service woman make proactive decisions regarding their contraceptive decisions.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness | Health Innovation Month

Women’s health emerging priorities series highlights mental health

A woman holding her hands near her face

Women’s mental health can be more affected by transitioning than men’s, speakers’ series attendees hear.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Total Force Fitness | Depression | Psychological Fitness

DOD initiatives address the sexual health of our military

Image of a bacterium

STIs are important to identify and treat because they can impact service members’ health and readiness, as well as their ability to perform their duties.

Recommended Content:

Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch | Health Readiness | Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness | Men's Health | Women's Health

COVID-19 vaccine does not affect fertility, immunization experts say

Black and white photo of a couple holding hands

COVID-19 vaccination when pregnant or breastfeeding shows no harm, immunologists weigh in.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Coronavirus | COVID-19 Vaccine Efforts | COVID-19 Vaccine Toolkit

Decreasing cervical cancer – one HPV vaccine at a time

Medical personnel showing report to soldier

Early detection and prevention methods are key to help women fight and prevent this form of cancer.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness Toolkit | Women's Health | Total Force Fitness | Total Force Fitness Toolkit

Transition support for servicewomen planning to leave the military

Three women in military uniforms standing together

As of today, the WHTT has supported more than 1,300 servicewomen to date.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | DoD/VA Sharing Initiatives

Weed ACH hosted breast cancer awareness event

Woman in pink hat and shirt, wearing a racing number, speaking to an audience

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a chance to raise awareness about the importance of early detection of breast cancer.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Combat Support | Women's Health
<< < 1 2 > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 2

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.