Vitamin D is a group of fat-soluble secosteroids, the two major physiologically relevant forms of which are vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Vitamin D without a subscript refers to either D2 or D3 or both. Vitamin D3 is produced in the skin of vertebrates after exposure to ultraviolet B light from the sun or artificial sources, and occurs naturally in a small range of foods. In some countries staples such as milk, flour and margarine are artificially fortified with vitamin D, and it is also available as a supplement in pill form.
Vitamin D is carried in the bloodstream to the liver, where it is converted into the prohormone calcidiol. Circulating calcidiol may then be converted into calcitriol, the biologically active form of vitamin D, either in the kidneys or by monocyte-macrophages in the immune system. When synthesized by monocyte-macrophages, calcitriol acts locally as a cytokine, defending the body against microbial invaders.
When synthesized in the kidneys, calcitriol circulates as a hormone, regulating, among other things, the concentration of calcium and phosphate in the bloodstream, promoting the healthy mineralization, growth and remodeling of bone, and the prevention of hypocalcemic tetany. Vitamin D insufficiency can result in thin, brittle, or misshapen bones, while sufficiency prevents rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults, and, together with calcium, helps to protect older adults from osteoporosis. Vitamin D also modulates neuromuscular function, reduces inflammation, and influences the action of many genes that regulate the proliferation, differentiation and apoptosis of cells.