Vitamin D is a group of fat-soluble secosteroids responsible for increasing intestinal absorption of calcium, magnesium, and phosphate, and multiple other biological effects. In humans, the most important compounds in this group are vitamin D3 (also known as cholecalciferol) and vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol). Cholecalciferol and ergocalciferol can be ingested from the diet and from supplements. Only a few foods contain vitamin D. The major natural source of the vitamin is synthesis of cholecalciferol in the skin from cholesterol through a chemical reaction that is dependent on sun exposure (specifically UVB radiation).
Vitamin D from the diet or skin synthesis is biologically inactive. Enzymatic conversion (hydroxylation) in the liver and kidney is required for activation. As vitamin D can be synthesized in adequate amounts by most mammals exposed to sufficient sunlight, it is not an essential dietary factor, and so not technically a vitamin. Instead it could be considered a hormone, with activation of the vitamin D pro-hormone resulting in the active form, calcitriol, which then produces effects via a nuclear receptor in multiple locations.
Cholecalciferol is converted in the liver to calcifediol (25-hydroxycholecalciferol) while ergocalciferol is converted to 25-hydroxyergocalciferol. These two vitamin D metabolites (called 25-hydroxyvitamin D or 25(OH)D) are measured in serum to determine a person’s vitamin D status.
Calcifediol is further hydroxylated by the kidneys to form calcitriol (also known as 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol), the biologically active form of vitamin D, also known as D3.
Calcitriol circulates as a hormone in the blood. It has a major role regulating the concentration of calcium and phosphate, and promoting the healthy growth and remodeling of bone. Calcitriol also has other effects, including some on cell growth, neuromuscular and immune functions, and reduction of inflammation.
Vitamin D has a significant role in calcium homeostasis and metabolism. Its discovery was due to effort to find the dietary substance lacking in children with rickets (the childhood form of osteomalacia). Vitamin D supplements are given to treat or to prevent osteomalacia and rickets,
There is strong correlation between vitamin D sufficiency and optimal muscle function. Increasing levels of vitamin D reduce inflammation, pain, and myopathy while increasing muscle protein synthesis, ATP concentration, strength, jump height, jump velocity, jump power, exercise capacity, and physical performance. 25(OH)D levels above 40 ng/mL are required for fracture prevention, including stress fractures. Optimal musculoskeletal benefits occur at 25(OH)D levels above the current definition of sufficiency (> 30 ng/mL) with no reported sports health benefits above 50 ng/mL.
Vitamin D deficiency is common in athletes. For athletes presenting with stress fractures, musculoskeletal pain, and frequent illness, one should have a heightened awareness of the additional likely diagnosis of vitamin D deficiency. Correction of this deficiency is completed by standardized and supervised oral supplementation protocols with D3, producing significant musculoskeletal sports health benefits.