When the days start getting shorter and the nights start getting longer, that can only mean one thing: Vitamin D deficiency. Oh, were you going to say “fall is here”? Yes, unfortunately the two often go hand-in-hand. Vitamin D, often referred to as the "sunshine vitamin," stands out for its significant role in maintaining overall health. But despite its importance, vitamin D deficiency remains a silent epidemic affecting millions worldwide.
The Role of Vitamin D:
Vitamin D is a unique nutrient that the body produces in response to sunlight. The muscles, heart, brain, and immune system all have vitamin D receptors showing that it plays a critical role across multiple systems. Its primary role in the body, though, is to help absorb calcium and phosphorus, nutrients essential for bone growth. In fact, long term vitamin D deficiency is linked to Rickets and Osteomalacia which are conditions of weakened and soft bones.
Research has also linked adequate levels of vitamin D to a reduced risk of certain diseases, including cardiovascular conditions and autoimmune disorders due to its anti-inflammatory effects.
Vitamin D is also as vital for mental health as it is for physical health. Low levels are linked with depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide affecting millions of people. And while there are effective medical treatments, most people do not receive treatment. For some that may be due to limited medical access or financial reasons, but for many it is due to unwanted side effects or fear of addiction to medication.
Despite its abundant source in sunlight, vitamin D deficiency remains widespread globally. In the US alone, 42% of adults are deficient and approximately 70% of kids between the ages of 6 and 11 are deficient. Several factors contribute to these decreased levels, including:
- limited sun exposure due to lifestyle changes
- increased indoor activities
- geographical location
- and cultural clothing practices.
Furthermore, specific demographic groups, such as the elderly and those with conditions affecting fat absorption, are more prone to deficiency.
Dark-skinned individuals are especially at risk of deficiency. Melanin, the substance in skin that makes it dark, absorbs the ultraviolet radiation from sunlight thus making it unavailable for vitamin D production in the skin. As a result, dark-skinned people tend to require more sun exposure than light-skinned people to generate the same amount of vitamin D.
Signs and Symptoms:
The insidious nature of vitamin D deficiency often makes it challenging to diagnose. Symptoms can be subtle and often nonspecific resulting in under recognition. Common symptoms include:
- mood changes
- back pain
- generalized muscle pain.
These symptoms are often overlooked or attributed to other factors. Prolonged deficiency can lead to severe health implications, including osteoporosis, increased risk of fractures, cardiovascular issues, and a higher susceptibility to infections.
The only way to diagnose vitamin D deficiency is through specific blood work which is not commonly included with routine screenings. If you suspect that you are deficient, it is important to ask your doctor for testing. While supplementing is generally considered safe, it is important to avoid high doses of vitamin D just on the the assumption of deficiency. Extremely high intake levels of vitamin D carries its own risk factors.
Making a Change:
Preventing vitamin D deficiency is relatively straightforward. It is well known that “getting some sun” boosts natural vitamin D production. However, there is a fine line between “some sun” and “too much sun” so precautions are necessary. While clothing and cloud cover can significantly diminish the amount of UV rays that reach the skin, the good news is that only a small amount of skin exposure is needed to kick start vitamin D production! Additionally, a 2019 study showed that sunscreen, when used properly, will reduce the risk of developing melanoma without reducing vitamin D levels. Thus, it is possible to take safety precautions for the suns UV rays and still reap the benefits of vitamin D production!
Dietary changes to incorporate foods rich in vitamin D, such as fatty fish, eggs, fortified dairy products, and certain cereals, can also be beneficial. For those where natural means are insufficient, supplementation under the guidance of a medical professional is a viable option. Regular screening and monitoring of vitamin D levels are crucial, especially for individuals at a higher risk of deficiency.
In cases of depression and SAD, it is important to state that supplementing with vitamin D may not be a sufficient cure-for-all. There are many promising studies, but more evidence is still needed. If you, or someone you know, suffers from feelings of sadness or loneliness call the Tennessee Crisis Line 855-CRISIS-1 (855-274-7471)
Vitamin D is as unique as it is important. But unfortunately, the majority of people in the world fall short of sufficient levels. Prioritizing our health, understanding the importance of sun exposure, and embracing a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients are vital steps toward a healthier lifestyle. It's time to shed light on the shadows of vitamin D deficiency and pave the way for a brighter, healthier tomorrow.
Harvard Health Publishing
Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology
Journal of Investigative Medicine
Issues in Mental Health Nursing