Vitamin D deficiency. Do you know the symptoms? How do you know if you are at risk of having it? What should you do if you are, and how do you prevent it? These are the questions I will answer today…
Vitamin D – A Crucial Hormone
Vitamin D is called the ‘sunshine vitamin‘ because although it is present in a few foods, your body primarily manufactures it as a hormone when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Without this crucial vitamin, your body cannot absorb the calcium you eat. Rather, it ends up ‘stealing’ it from your bones instead, subsequently increasing your risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Another important role of vitamin D includes regulation of gene expression, including some associated with cancers, autoimmune disease, and infection.
Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is very common, with some estimating that it affects over 40% of all adults, 70% of Hispanics, and 82% of African-Americans in the U.S. In addition, vitamin D deficiency can be troublesome for females, with women being especially prone to the symptoms of low vitamin D. Needless to say, the health consequences of vitamin D insufficiency are numerous and include increased risk of skeletal diseases, metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, infections, cognitive disorders, and some cancers.
Are You at Risk?
Start by asking yourselves a few questions:
- Are you 50 years or older?
- Do you have darker skin?
- Do you live in the northern U.S. or Canada (or anywhere far from the equator)?
- Do you spend a lot of time indoors?
- When you go outside, do you avoid the sun by putting on sunscreen or covering up?
- Are you overweight or obese?
- Do you have inflammatory bowel disease or gluten sensitivity?
- Do you have a milk allergy or follow a vegan diet?
- Do you have chronic kidney disease?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, this means that for various reasons, you are considered at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency. But does this mean that you are deficient? Not necessarily…
How Much Vitamin D Should You Be Getting?
Currently, there are two sets of recommendations for the daily intake of vitamin D, one of which targets those at higher risk (those who answered “yes” to the questions above). The recommendations are provided in the table below:
While sometimes a doctor will prescribe a much higher dose under particular circumstances, unless you are advised to do so, one should avoid taking more than 4,000 IU as this is generally considered the safe upper level to avoid risk of vitamin D toxicity.
5 Signs of Vitamin D Deficiency
With that said, the only way to know for sure if you are vitamin D deficient is through a blood test. However, as this test is not always routinely ordered, it is important to be aware of the common signs and symptoms. If you find that the following applies to you, I would recommend discussing with your doctor the possibility of getting your vitamin D level checked.
#1 Frequent feeling of having the “blues”
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked with increased risk of depression and with more severe depression…particularly in older adults. Vitamin D plays a role in various neurotransmitter production and protects against the depletion of serotonin and dopamine in the brain which in turn helps regulate your emotions. For those who have a deficiency, vitamin D supplementation can significantly improve symptoms, as well as help seasonal depressive symptoms that occur during the winter months.
#2 Constant fatigue and weakness
There are vitamin D receptors in your muscles that have a direct effect on muscle strength. Chronic deficiency, therefore, can lead to persistent fatigue and muscle weakness in the absence of other causes. Fortunately, correcting the deficiency usually leads to the improvement of symptoms.
#3 Bone pain and aches
Vitamin D, as mentioned earlier, is a critical player in the maintenance of bone health. As a result, low levels of this hormone lead to changes that manifest as aches and pains, especially chronic lower back pain and bone pain in the legs, ribs, or joints. Therefore, if you have no history of arthritis or injury, but still experience such symptoms of chronic pain, a vitamin deficiency may be a contributing factor.
#4 Generalized chronic pain with no apparent cause
Furthermore, vitamin D receptors are present in specialized pain-sensing neurons, and there is evidence that vitamin D deficiency can lead to heightened pain perception manifested as generalized pain that doesn’t seem to respond to treatment. It also can contribute to muscle aches and neuropathy-type pain.
While there is not sufficient evidence showing that taking vitamin D will cure chronic pain, people often report some improvement in their symptoms upon treating their deficiency.
#5 Frequent colds
One of the important roles of Vitamin D is its modulation of your immune system by keeping it strong and helping you fight infections. Those with vitamin D deficiencies often experience frequent upper and lower respiratory tract infections such as like colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia.
Prevention – What Can You Do?
Allow yourself to get some sun: It takes approximately 15-30 minutes of sun exposure three times a week for most people to produce a good amount of vitamin D. Keep in mind, however, that factors such as older age, darker skin tone, and health status can affect how well your body naturally produces the hormone.
Consider taking a supplement: Vitamin D3 is considered the most effective form available, so be sure to choose this if shopping for supplements (and not D2). Also, as it is a lipid-soluble vitamin, taking it with fatty foods, rather than on an empty stomach, will enhance absorption.
Enjoy some fatty fish: While this would not be enough to correct a severe deficiency, foods rich in vitamin D can be incorporated into your meals as part of a healthy diet. Some of them are listed below:
Most importantly, though, if you are experiencing these symptoms, the first step is to talk with your doctor. Your doctor can not only check your vitamin D level, but he or she can also help you in determining how much vitamin D supplementation, if any, you should take.
Here’s to healthy living!
*You can find more essential health information like this in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.