“Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy” sang John Denver. Doctors will agree that he wasn’t off the mark.
When our skin is exposed to sunshine, it creates Vitamin D. Lack or deficiency of Vitamin D can cause muscle weakness, pain, fatigue, and depression. On a more serious note, since Vitamin D helps the body use calcium from the diet, its deficiency can lead to loss of bone density, which can contribute to osteoporosis and resulting fractures. Latest research has found connections between Vitamin D deficiency and a host of other problems such as cardio-vascular disease, cognitive impairment in older adults, infections and immune system disorders, asthma and even cancer.
Vitamin D helps our bodies perform many important functions:
- Increases bone health through enabling calcium absorption
- Promotes muscle health
- Keeps the immune system well-functioning
- Aids in cell growth
- Reduces inflammation which in turn prevents diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
- Regulates blood pressure
- Supports cardiovascular health
A simple blood test can help your doctor figure out if you are Vitamin D deficient. There can be a number of reasons why you may not be getting as much Vitamin D as you need.
- You may have limited exposure to the sun or may be dark skinned. A common myth is that dark skinned people can’t be Vitamin D deficient. In fact, the darker your skin, the more sun exposure is needed to get sufficient vitamin D from the sun
- If you live in an area that gets little or no sun for most of the year
- Your kidneys are unable to convert Vitamin D to its active form. This could be due to aging
- Your digestive system is unable to absorb Vitamin D from the food that you eat
- Certain medications such as laxatives, cholesterol reducing drugs, weight loss drugs and Tuberculosis drugs are also known to cause Vitamin D deficiency
Treatment for Vitamin D deficiency depends on the degree of deficiency. The amount of vitamin D needed per day varies by age and health conditions. You can increase your time in the sun for a start. A weekly exposure of about 15-20 minutes, three days per week is sufficient for you to get Vitamin D. Your doctor may also prescribe supplements. Increase your daily intake of foods that are rich in Vitamin D such as egg yolks, fatty fish, mushrooms, and soy. Certain fortified packaged products such as yogurt and orange juice can also be sources of Vitamin D.
Foods and limited sun exposure are relatively safe ways to get Vitamin D, but you should be careful not to overdo the supplements or the sun. While Vitamin D toxicity is rare, it can lead to Hypercalcemia which can cause nausea, constipation, weakness, confusion, and poor appetite. Overexposure to the sun can also put you at risk for skin cancer.
It is best to eat healthy meals, take supplements as needed and if it is mostly cloudy and dark where you live, pack your bags every now and then and leave “on a jet plane” to someplace sunnier!