Vitamin D deficiency. What are the risks? How can you determine if you’re deficient? And what are the benefits of raising your vitamin D level?
Vitamin D deficiency is incredibly common around the world, but many mistakenly believe they aren’t at risk because they consume vitamin D-fortified foods, such as milk.
Few foods have therapeutic levels of vitamin D naturally, and even fortified foods do not contain enough vitamin D to support your health needs.
Despite its name, vitamin D is a steroid hormone that you obtain primarily through sun exposure, not via your diet. Since most dermatologists and other doctors recommend avoiding the sun and using sunscreen before venturing outdoors, vitamin D deficiency has reached truly epidemic proportions around the world.
Unfortunately, while the justification for sun avoidance is that it may reduce your risk of skin cancer, by avoiding sun exposure you risk vitamin D deficiency, which in turn raises your risk for many cancers — not only internal ones but also skin cancer, as well as a whole host of chronic diseases.
Considering the importance of vitamin D for disease prevention, strict sun avoidance is likely doing far more harm than good. The major problem with sun exposure is burning, not overall exposure. And, the easily treatable forms of skin cancer — squamous and basal cell carcinomas — are the ones most likely to form.
Definition of Vitamin D Deficiency
According to research published in June 2018, an estimated 40 percent of Americans are profoundly vitamin D deficient, defined as having a serum (blood) level of vitamin D below 20 ng/mL (50 nmol/L). Sufficiency is defined as having a level of 20 ng/mL or higher.
Calling someone with a vitamin D level of less than 20 ng/ml vitamin D deficient is like calling someone over 400 pounds simply overweight; in both cases a grossly serious understatement.
Seventy-five percent of American adults and teens are deficient in vitamin D when a sufficiency level of 30 ng/mL is used. If the sufficiency cutoff were to be moved to 40 to 60 ng/mL, sufficiency rates in the U.S. would likely be in the high 90 percent bracket.
It’s important to realize that 20 ng/mL has repeatedly been shown to be grossly insufficient for good health and disease prevention and anything below 40 ng/mL (100 nmol/L) should be suspect.
For example, research has shown that once you reach a minimum serum vitamin D level of 40 ng/mL, your risk for cancer diminishes by 67 percent, compared to having a level of 20 ng/mL or less.
Most cancers occur in people with a vitamin D blood level between 10 and 40 ng/mL (25 to 100 nmol/L), and the optimal level for cancer protection now appears to be between 60 and 80 ng/mL (150 to 200 nmol/L).
Top 5 Signs of Vitamin D Deficiency
The only way to definitively identify vitamin D deficiency is via blood testing. However, there are some general signs and symptoms to be aware of as well.
If any of the following apply to you, you should get your vitamin D levels tested sooner rather than later, and take proactive steps to boost your level into the 60 to 80 ng/mL range:
1. Ongoing musculoskeletal pain and achy bones — According to vitamin D researcher Dr. Michael Holick, many who see their doctor for aches and pains, especially in combination with fatigue, end up being misdiagnosed as having fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.
“Many of these symptoms are classic signs of vitamin D deficiency osteomalacia, which is different from the vitamin D deficiency that causes osteoporosis in adults,” Holick says.
“What’s happening is that vitamin D deficiency causes a defect in putting calcium into the collagen matrix into your skeleton. As a result, you have throbbing, aching bone pain.”
2. Frequent illness/infections — Vitamin D regulates the expression of genes that influence your immune system to attack and destroy bacteria and viruses, so frequent illness and infections of all kinds, including colds and flu, is a tip-off that your immune function is subpar, which likely means you’re low on vitamin D.
3. Neurological symptoms — This includes depression, “feeling blue, cognitive impairment, headaches, and migraines. In 2006, scientists evaluated the effects of vitamin D on the mental health of 80 elderly patients and found those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who received healthy doses.
The same study also found low vitamin D was linked to poor cognitive performance. Several other studies have also linked vitamin D deficiency with poor mental function, confusion, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating. Headaches and migraines are also associated with low vitamin D.
4. Fatigue and daytime sleepiness — Studies have linked low vitamin D to persistent fatigue. In one case, a woman struggling with chronic fatigue, daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia), low back pain and daily headaches were found to have a vitamin D level below 6 ng/mL.
Her symptoms resolved once she raised it to 39 ng/mL. Another study found women with vitamin D levels below 29 ng/mL were more likely to complain of fatigue than those with levels above 30 ng/mL.
5. Head sweating — According to Holick, a classic sign of vitamin D deficiency is a sweaty head. Physicians used to ask new mothers about head sweating in their newborns for this very reason. Excessive sweating in newborns due to neuromuscular irritability is still described as a common, early symptom of vitamin D deficiency.
Related: Vegetarian Sources Of Vitamin D
Other signs that can alarm you about vitamin D deficiency are:
The causes of muscle pain are often difficult to pinpoint.
There is some evidence that vitamin D deficiency may be a potential cause of muscle pain in children and adults.
In one study, 71% of people with chronic pain were found to be deficient.
The vitamin D receptor is present in nerve cells called nociceptors, which sense pain.
One study in rats showed that a deficiency led to pain and sensitivity due to the stimulation of nociceptors in muscles.
A few studies have found that taking high-dose vitamin D supplements may reduce various types of pain in deficient people.
One study in 120 children with vitamin D deficiency who had growing pains found that a single dose of the vitamin reduced pain scores by an average of 57%.
Hair loss is often attributed to stress, which is certainly a common cause.
However, when hair loss is severe, it may be the result of a disease or nutrient deficiency.
Hair loss in women has been linked to low vitamin D levels, though there is very little research on this to date.
Alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease characterized by severe hair loss from the head and other parts of the body. It’s associated with rickets, which is a disease that causes soft bones in children due to vitamin D deficiency.
Low vitamin D levels are linked to alopecia areata and may be a risk factor for developing the disease.
One study in people with alopecia areata showed that lower vitamin D blood levels tended to be associated with a more severe hair loss.
In a case study, topical application of a synthetic form of the vitamin was found to successfully treat hair loss in a young boy with a defect in the vitamin D receptor.
Related: Natural Remedies For Hair Loss
Impaired Wound Healing
Slow healing of wounds after surgery or injury may be a sign that your vitamin D levels are too low.
Results from a test-tube study suggest that the vitamin increases the production of compounds that are crucial for forming new skin as part of the wound-healing process.
One study on people who had dental surgery found that certain aspects of healing were compromised by vitamin D deficiency.
It’s also been suggested that vitamin D’s role in controlling inflammation and fighting infection is important for proper healing.
One analysis looked at patients with diabetic foot infections.
It found that those with severe vitamin D deficiency were more likely to have higher levels of inflammatory markers that can jeopardize healing.
Unfortunately, there is very little research about the effects of vitamin D supplements on wound healing in people with deficiency at this point.
However, one study found that when vitamin D deficient patients with leg ulcers were treated with the vitamin, ulcer size reduced by 28%, on average.
A depressed mood may also be a sign of vitamin D deficiency.
In review studies, researchers have linked vitamin D deficiency to depression, particularly in older adults.
In one analysis, 65% of the observational studies found a relationship between low blood levels and depression.
On the other hand, most of the controlled trials, which carry more scientific weight than observational studies, didn’t show a link between the two.
However, the researchers who analyzed the studies noted that the dosages of vitamin D in controlled studies were often very low.
Also, they observed that some of the studies may not have lasted long enough to see the effect of taking supplements on mood.
Some controlled studies have shown that giving vitamin D to people who are deficient helps improve depression, including seasonal depression that occurs during the colder months
Here are 7 common risk factors for vitamin D deficiency:
- Having dark skin.
- Being elderly.
- Being overweight or obese.
- Not eating much fish or dairy.
- Living far from the equator where there is little sun year-round.
- Always using sunscreen when going out.
- Staying indoors.
People who live near the equator and get frequent sun exposure are less likely to be deficient, as their skin produces enough vitamin D to satisfy their bodies’ needs.
Most people don’t realize that they’re deficient, as symptoms are generally subtle. You may not recognize them easily, even if they’re having a significant negative effect on your quality of life.
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Conclusion: Vitamin D is very important for our health.When you feel first signs that are correlated with vitamin D deficiency ask for medical help.