Vitamin D. The so-called ‘sunshine vitamin’. But there are probably quite a lot of people that don’t quite know what it does, how it’s used & stored within our bodies, or just how important it really is.
I personally knew very little about it until a few years ago, when a specialist at the osteoporosis clinic did a simple blood test to discover I was chronically deficient, and probably had been for several years. With nearly non-existent levels, it was quite a wake-up call, and studies suggest many of us may be deficient to some degree without knowing it.
It’s perhaps all the more important to consider it during the winter months, but even during summer many of us likely don’t get the levels of the good stuff we need. With the current lockdown, it could be argued supplementation is going to be more widely needed with us spending far less time outdoors.
Vitamin D & Coronavirus
Vitamin D has been in the news more recently with research suggesting a potential link between Vitamin D and Coronavirus. One study has found found that the highest death and infection rates are in populations with lower Vitamin D levels.
Another study, by Northwestern University, concluded that those with severe vitamin D were two times as likely to suffer complications from the virus.
It has been suggested that optimising intake of vitamin D be promoted during the pandemic to benefit general health and immune system functionality. Dr Lee Smith at Anglia Ruskin University claims that “Vitamin D has been shown to protect against acute respiratory infections” and notes how older adults, often more deficient in Vitamin D, are the ones more vulnerable to the effects of the virus. Nonetheless, research is still minimal and additional trials are needed to fully ascertain the link between the vitamin and the virus.
Regardless of whether low Vitamin D is linked with infection and mortality rates with the coronavirus, this vitamin is vital to everyday health.
Now’s a good time to consider whether you need to get your Vit D checked or add it to your regular supplement routine.
How Do We Get The Good Stuff?
Vitamin D can be made naturally in your body in response to sunlight. We tend to get about 90% of our Vitamin D from the sunshine, which isn’t too reassuring if you live in the UK where the sun tends to go into hiding 360 days of the year. To get the benefits, you’d need about 15 minutes of full sunlight, on bare skin, throughout the week. You may get this if you go on holiday somewhere warm and sunny, but this top-up probably won’t last you long enough as it’s stored in the body for around 2 months. Sunscreen also prevents as much goodness from being absorbed by your skin, so it’s a tricky predicament.
It can also be absorbed from certain foods, but these are quite limited. They include some fortified gain/dairy products, some red meat, egg yolks, and some oily fish. Whilst it’s required by law that manufacturers add Vitamin D to infant formula milk, the added levels in everyday products can vary but are often only tiny amounts.
What Does Vit D Do?
This magical vitamin is surprisingly important and plays various roles in the body.
Vitamin D is vital to bone health. We need it because it helps the body absorb calcium (and phosphate) from the diet, which in turn is important for teeth, muscles and bones.
Vitamin D is needed for healthy functioning of your heart, lungs and brain, as well as for fighting infections.
Vitamin D boots your immune system and supports the body’s cells in various ways throughout your life. Your respiratory system, bones, brain, cardiovascular system, immune system and muscles are therefore all aided by Vitamin D.
Once your body grabs some Vitamin D, it gets sent to your liver and turned in to 25(OH)D, which is then redistributed throughout your body. Various tissues then transform it magically into ‘activated Vitamin D’, where it goes on to perform its duties.
Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency
Many won’t experience any symptoms, but some may, especially with a more chronic deficiency. At the extreme, it can cause Ricketts or lead to weak, brittle or thin bones. Some more commonly reported symptoms can include :
- General aches and pains
- Pain in your bones and weakness
- More regular infections (from weakened immune system functioning)
With generalised symptoms, or no symptoms at all, it’s easy for Vitamin D deficiency to go unnoticed or misdiagnosed.
A lack of it has been linked to various problems beyond bones, though research is still up for debate and strong evidence is lacking in many areas. It’s thought it may up the risk of depression, and play a role in migraines and some cancers. My chronic Vit D deficiency is likely to be partly to blame for the osteopenia I now have, being one small step away from osteoporosis at only 27 when I was diagnosed. It can also result in muscle weakness and exhaustion, as if ageing the body simply through the lack of this vitamin.
Am I Likely To Have A Deficiency?
Certain factors can put you at a higher risk of low levels. For instance :
- If your skin doesn’t regularly get sunlight exposure (many don’t because of indoor-based lifestyles or use of suncream)
- If your body needs more than it usually does, ie. during pregnancy
- If you are vegan and unlikely to get many food-based sources
- If you have digestive issues that mean your intestine may not adequately absorb Vitamin D
- If your kidneys aren’t adequately converting Vitamin D into ‘active’ Vitamin D (as often happens in older age)
A Vitamin D blood test, which looks at the 25(OH)D level, is not routinely done, at least not in the UK via the NHS. If you suspect you may be deficient or are experiencing unexplained symptoms speak to your doctor and ask for a Vit D blood test.
Should I Supplement?
Always get your level checked first and speak to your doctor about supplementing. Generally speaking, it’s claimed we need 10µg daily (which is the equivalent to 600IU if you’re under 70, or 800IU if 70+). For average use and Vitamin D top-up, OTC supplements can be a straightforward way of preventing deficiency. If you have a chronic deficiency, however, you may need to be prescribed a ‘loading dose’ like I did, which is a far greater amount of Vitamin D than any OTC supplement would offer.
When I was initially tested around the time of my osteopenia diagnosis, they found my Vit D levels were almost non-existent. After the losing doses I was told I’d probably need to be supplementing every day for the rest of my life. I’d certainly recommend having your levels checked and if you feel you may benefit from topping up, especially if you don’t get enough outdoors time in the sunshine, then it’s handy to consider supplements. While getting vitamins through diet and lifestyle are considered to be ideal, it’s just not possible for everyone; not everyone can make or metabolise certain vitamins, so supplementation can be vital.
Suggested Supplements …
There are a few different formats you can try for Vitamin D (as a D3 supplement). I’ve given examples for each with the best value purchases I’ve been able to find.
Liquid Dropper : Nature’s Aid Vitamin D3 Drops
This is advertised as a kids’ supplement but it’s also for adults. This is the one I’ve been using for maybe 2 years now and I’m happy with it. It’s quick and convenient, and you only need a few drops a day.
Oral Spray : BetterYou Vitamin D Oral Spray
I’ve previously reviewed their Magnesium spray, which is incredibly popular. This Vitamin D offering is an oral spray for quick absorption and ease of use.
Tablets : Lindens Vitamin D3
If you prefer a quick tablet supplement and you don’t have absorption problems, then I’d recommend Lindens. I use them for other things, like probiotics, and with their Vit D you get a high potency (choice between 1000-5000iU) and plenty in the pack to make it excellent value for money.
As always, it’s worth noting that I’m not a medical professional; speak to your GP or specialist if you have any concerns.
If you’re struggling to get the test or treatment you need, persevere. Your health is worth it.
Have you been diagnosed with a Vitamin D deficiency? Is this a vitamin you try to supplement?