Vitamin D And Its Pivotal Role In Female Athletic Performance

Published on : August 16, 2023

Tags: Female AthleticVitamin D

Micronutrients play a huge role in health and performance. Be it vitamins or minerals, they have such major roles to play though they are required in micro quantities. 

Vitamin D is one such important, fat-soluble vitamin. It is called the sunshine vitamin.

A fun fact about this vitamin is that this is the only vitamin that the body can synthesise on its own, unlike the other vitamins.

Is Vitamin D a hormone? 

Ideally, Vitamin D is an inaccurate name, a misnomer. It is not a true vitamin because it can be synthesized externally through ultraviolet exposure of the skin to the sun. It is a fat-soluble hormone that comes in 3 forms [19]. Vitamin D is more of a multifunctional hormone or prohormone[2].

Sources of Vitamin D

The other sources of Vitamin D apart from sunlight include:[1]

  • Mushrooms
  • Eggs
  • Oily fishes- such as salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel.
  • Supplements
  • Fortified foods- ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, milk, orange juice, infant formula, yoghurt, margarine, butter, cheese

Functions of Vitamin D for athletes and the general population [3,17]

Vitamin D is well known for its influence on the bones. However, it is not limited to that. Vitamin D also has multi-functions:

  • Acts as a pro-hormone in the body
  • Regulates the parathyroid hormone
  • Regulates uptake of calcium and phosphorus
  • Enhances immunity
  • Improves cardiovascular system
  • Prevents inflammation

Risks of Vitamin D Deficiency for athletes and the general population[3]

A deficiency in Vitamin D can lead to:

  • Rickets where there is softening and weakening of bones in children
  • Osteomalacia is softening of bones in adults
  • Osteoporosis and osteoporotic-related fractures are caused due to changes in the quality of bone and its structure.
  • Increase in cancers (colon, prostate, and breast)  
  • Depression: Vitamin D is a key nutrient for your mental and physical health. Studies have found that low vitamin D levels are linked to depression and that taking vitamin D supplements may help improve depression symptoms in people with low vitamin D levels[16].
  • Increase in infections, especially upper respiratory tract infections.
  • Pain (musculoskeletal, cancer, fibromyalgia)

Vitamin D recommendations [3]

The recommended Vitamin D intake levels of the Institute of Medicine

Age Recommended Intake (IU/day)
Children (0–18 years) 400–600
Adults (19–70 years) 600
Older Adults (>70 years) 800
Pregnancy/Lactation 600

The toxicity of Vitamin D might be caused due to excess consumption of supplements for a long period of time. The main consequence of vitamin D toxicity is a buildup of calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia), which can cause nausea and vomiting, weakness, and frequent urination. Vitamin D toxicity might progress to bone pain and kidney problems, such as the formation of calcium stones[15, 17].

Best time for sun exposure for the synthesis of Vitamin D

Vitamin D from sunlight is best synthesised between 10 am to 3 pm when the rays of the sun are concentrated (UV-B) [1]. A 15 to 20-minute exposure to the sun during this period without sunscreen can synthesise over 10,000 IU of Vitamin D in light-skinned people. However, even those who spend the most time outdoors might require supplementation in case of insufficiency or deficiency.

Vitamin D deficiency is defined as <20 ng/mL (50 nmol/L), insufficiency is defined as 20–32 ng/mL (50–80 nmol/L), and optimal levels are >40 ng/mL (100 nmol/L) [3,17].

Vitamin D and women 

The ways in which Vitamin D can help women are: [18

  • It can help regulate insulin levels in the body
  • It can control cholesterol levels 
  • It can help with the regular menstrual cycle

The above image shows the health implications of Vitamin D deficiency in women. A proper intake of Vitamin D through foods and sunlight can prevent the frequency of such problems in women[18].

How research shows the effects of Vitamin D on athletes?

The levels of Vitamin D in the blood are seen to be lowest in March and highest in September[4].

A supplementation of Vitamin D has shown improvement in hand grip strength[12]. Athletes with excess fat may be at higher risk for Vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency[13]. Very low Vitamin D levels in swimmers may lead to respiratory infections[14].

The amount of Vitamin D in women can also affect their bone mineral density. Sufficient Vitamin D can also improve aerobic performance in athletes. [17]

Vitamin D and Calcium

As seen earlier, Vitamin D interacts with calcium in the body. They are the two most important nutrients for bone health. 

Calcium is a well-known mineral that majorly keeps the bone healthy. Rich sources of calcium per 100g are drumstick leaves/ moringa powder, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, ragi, milk, and jaggery.

Vitamin D and calcium play pivotal roles in the prevention of fractures, especially in women. It is Vitamin D that is responsible for uptake and regulation of calcium in the bones and the blood. Sufficient Vitamin D levels ensure proper calcification of the bones and thereby can help prevent calcium deficiency. 

In this light, it is necessary to consume Vitamin D-rich foods alongside calcium-rich foods.


It can therefore be concluded that Vitamin D is very essential in so many aspects of health and performance, more so for female athletes. 

Thus it is important for female athletes to 

  • keep an eye on the serum levels of Vitamin D at least once in 6 months, 
  • ensure sufficient dietary intake of Vitamin D and sun exposure as per guidelines. 

Consulting a nutritionist/ a medical practitioner before administration of vitamin supplements is very essential as the results always need to be correlated clinically.


  1. Khazai N, Judd SE, Tangpricha V. Calcium and vitamin D: skeletal and extraskeletal health. Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2008 Apr;10(2):110-7. doi: 10.1007/s11926-008-0020-y. PMID: 18460265; PMCID: PMC2669834.
  2. Ellison DL, Moran HR. Vitamin D: Vitamin or Hormone? Nurs Clin North Am. 2021 Mar;56(1):47-57. doi: 10.1016/j.cnur.2020.10.004. Epub 2020 Dec 28. PMID: 33549285.
  3. Ogan D, Pritchett K. Vitamin D and the athlete: risks, recommendations, and benefits. Nutrients. 2013 May 28;5(6):1856-68. doi: 10.3390/nu5061856. PMID: 23760056; PMCID: PMC3725481.
  4. Maruyama‑Nagao, A., Sakuraba, K., & Suzuki, Y. (2016). Seasonal variations in vitamin D status in indoor and outdoor female athletes. Biomedical Reports, 5, 113-117.
  5. Vitamin D sources image retrieved from
  6. Moringa powder image retrieved from
  7. Poppy seeds image retrieved from
  8. Sesame seeds image retrieved from
  9. Ragi image retrieved from
  10. Milk image retrieved from
  11. Jaggery image retrieved from 
  12. Pritchett, K., Pritchett, R. C., Stark, L., Broad, E., & LaCroix, M. (2019). Effect of Vitamin D Supplementation on 25(OH)D Status in Elite Athletes With Spinal Cord Injury. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 29(1), 18-23. Retrieved Jul 29, 2023, from
  13. Heller, J. E., Thomas, J. J., Hollis, B. W., & Larson-Meyer, D. E. (2015). Relation Between Vitamin D Status and Body Composition in Collegiate Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 25(2), 128-135. Retrieved Jul 29, 2023, from
  14. Dubnov-Raz, G., Hemilä, H., Cohen, A. H., Rinat, B., Choleva, L., & Constantini, N. W. (2015). Vitamin D Supplementation and Upper Respiratory Tract Infections in Adolescent Swimmers: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Pediatric Exercise Science, 27(1), 113-119. Retrieved Jul 29, 2023, from
  15. What is vitamin D toxicity? Should I be worried about taking supplements?. Retrieved from,the%20formation%20of%20calcium%20stones
  16. Is a Vitamin D Deficiency Causing Your Depression? Retrieved from
  17. de la Puente Yagüe, M., Collado Yurrita, L., Ciudad Cabañas, M. J., & Cuadrado Cenzual, M. A. (2020). Role of Vitamin D in Athletes and Their Performance: Current Concepts and New Trends., 12(2), 579.
  18. Grundmann, M., von Versen-Höynck, F. Vitamin D – roles in women’s reproductive health?. Reprod Biol Endocrinol 9, 146 (2011).
  19. Demer LL, Hsu JJ, Tintut Y. Steroid Hormone Vitamin D: Implications for Cardiovascular Disease. Circ Res. 2018 May 25;122(11):1576-1585. doi: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.118.311585. PMID: 29798901; PMCID: PMC6122607.


Harshavardhini S is a Sports Nutritionist with a Master’s in sports nutrition from ICMR- National Institute of Nutrition, with a keen interest in female athletes- health and performance.



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