If you avoid sunlight, use sunscreen, have allergies to milk, or strictly follow a vegan diet, you might be at risk for vitamin D insufficiency. Known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is generated by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. It is also found naturally in certain foods, including certain kinds of fish, fish liver oils, and egg yolks, as well as in fortified dairy and grain products.
Vitamin D is vital for strong bones because it aids in the absorption of dietary calcium. Traditionally, vitamin D deficiency has been associated with rickets, a disease characterized by improper mineralization of the bone tissue, resulting in weak bones and skeletal deformities. However, recent research has highlighted the importance of vitamin D in protecting against a range of health problems.
Vitamin D is commonly linked to strong bones and healthy teeth, but its significance extends far beyond skeletal health. This fat-soluble vitamin plays a critical role in numerous bodily functions, and an insufficiency can lead to a wide range of hidden symptoms that may not immediately be attributed to low levels of vitamin D. Here’s how inadequate vitamin D can impact overall human health.
Symptoms and Health Risks of Insufficient Vitamin D
Signs such as bone pain and muscle weakness may indicate a deficiency in vitamin D. However, for many individuals, the symptoms are subtle. Nevertheless, even without symptoms, insufficient vitamin D can pose health risks. Low blood levels of the vitamin have been associated with the following:
- Higher risk of cardiovascular disease-related mortality
- Cognitive decline in the elderly
- Severe asthma in children
How much vitamin D should I consume?
Our body requires 15 mcg of vitamin D on a daily basis. Older individuals require higher amounts of vitamin D. It is crucial to consume the appropriate dosage of vitamin D as excessive intake can be detrimental to health. It is also known as the sunshine vitamin because the body synthesizes this crucial vitamin when exposed to sunlight.
Chronic fatigue can impact one’s productive years
Persistent fatigue is one of the most common yet often disregarded symptoms of vitamin D deficiency. Many individuals who experience ongoing exhaustion may attribute it to their busy lifestyles or other factors. However, a lack of vitamin D can lead to unexplained and chronic fatigue, making it challenging to perform daily tasks and affecting overall quality of life.
May exacerbate existing conditions like diabetes and asthma
Individuals with chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and autoimmune diseases may notice that their symptoms worsen when they have a vitamin D deficiency. This is because vitamin D possesses anti-inflammatory properties and plays a role in regulating the immune system, making it crucial for managing various chronic illnesses.
Can contribute to hypertension and heart-related diseases
Ongoing research is being conducted to understand the relationship between vitamin D and heart health. Some studies have indicated that low vitamin D levels may be connected to a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. Although the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, vitamin D may impact blood pressure regulation and inflammation, which are key factors in heart health.
Severe muscle pain can affect quality of life
Vitamin D is crucial for maintaining muscle strength and function. Insufficient levels can result in muscle weakness, aches, and pains, which may be mistakenly attributed to aging or lack of physical exercise. In severe cases, it can lead to conditions like osteomalacia, a softening of the bones, and myopathy, a muscle disease.
Deterioration of cognitive health
Emerging evidence suggests that vitamin D may play a role in cognitive function. Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with a higher risk of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Cognitive impairment, including memory problems and difficulty concentrating, can also be early indicators of vitamin D deficiency.
May weaken bones
While it is well-known that vitamin D is essential for bone health, its deficiency can manifest in more subtle ways. Hidden symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can include bone pain, particularly in the lower back and joints. Prolonged deficiency can lead to osteoporosis, a condition characterized by weak and porous bones.
Frequent susceptibility to infections
Vitamin D plays a significant role in supporting the immune system. Insufficient levels can weaken the body’s defense mechanisms, making it more vulnerable to infections, colds, and the flu. Additionally, research suggests that sufficient vitamin D levels are associated with a reduced risk of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease.
Can trigger irritable bowel syndrome
Some individuals with vitamin D deficiency may experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and gluten sensitivity. These issues can impact the body’s ability to effectively absorb and metabolize vitamin D, creating a cyclical deficiency.
Frequent mood changes and onset of depression
Research has revealed a strong correlation between vitamin D deficiency and mood disorders, including depression. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with an increased risk of depression, and individuals with depression often experience improvement when their vitamin D levels are normalized. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that occurs during the winter months, is also linked to reduced sunlight exposure, which leads to decreased synthesis of vitamin D in the skin.
Unexplained hair loss
Hair loss can be an inconspicuous symptom of vitamin D deficiency. While there are various contributing factors to hair loss, insufficient vitamin D can disrupt the hair follicle cycle and result in excessive shedding. If other potential causes of hair loss have been ruled out, it is worth considering whether vitamin D levels are adequate.
Causes of Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency can occur due to several reasons:
You do not consume the recommended amounts of the vitamin over time. This is more likely if you follow a strict vegetarian diet, as most natural sources are animal-based, such as fish and fish oils, egg yolks, fortified milk, and beef liver. Here are the best vitamin d foods for vegetarians.
Your exposure to sunlight is limited. Since the body synthesizes vitamin D when the skin is exposed to sunlight, deficiency may be a risk if you are homebound, reside in regions with high latitudes, wear clothing that covers most of your body for religious reasons, or have a job that restricts sun exposure. During winter, vitamin D deficiency can be more prevalent due to reduced sunlight availability.
Your digestive system is unable to adequately absorb vitamin D. Certain medical conditions, including Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and celiac disease, can affect the ability of your intestines to absorb vitamin D from the food you consume.
You are obese. Fat cells extract vitamin D from the blood, altering its release into circulation. People with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher often have low blood levels of vitamin D.
Treatment for Vitamin D Deficiency
Treating vitamin D deficiency involves increasing your vitamin D intake through diet and supplements. Although there is no consensus on the exact vitamin D levels required for optimal health, and the recommended amounts may vary depending on age and health conditions, a concentration of less than 20 nanograms per milliliter is generally considered insufficient and necessitates treatment.
Guidelines from the Institute of Medicine have raised the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin D to 600 international units (IU) for individuals aged 1-70, and increased it to 800 IU for adults over the age of 70 to enhance bone health. The safe upper limit has also been raised to 4,000 IU. Doctors may prescribe doses exceeding 4,000 IU to address a vitamin D deficiency.
If you have limited sun exposure or consistently take measures to protect your skin (which inhibits vitamin D production), it is recommended to consult with your doctor regarding vitamin D supplementation, particularly if you have risk factors for vitamin D deficiency.