Did you know that a vitamin D deficiency is actually far more likely than you might think? Indeed, a recent survey revealed that more than half of all UK adults do not receive a sufficient intake of this important vitamin, whilst during the winter months as many as 1 in 6 suffer from a severe deficiency. Unfortunately many of us only experience vague symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency, especially during the early stages, and are therefore oblivious to the problem. Left unchecked, however, a lack of vitamin D can lead to a number of serious health conditions and chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
What is vitamin D?
Contrary to popular belief, vitamin D is not one vitamin, but rather an entire group of fat-soluble prohormones – hormone precursors that enhance your body’s absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, and phosphate.
This group is further broken down into vitamins D1, D2, D3, D4 and D5.
Why is vitamin D so important for your health?
Scientists have long agreed that vitamin D is crucial for bone health and can help to prevent bone diseases, such as rickets and osteomalacia (soft bones that causes sever bone and muscle weakness). Yet, the latest research appears to indicate that vitamin D has a much wider role in our overall health and mental wellbeing than previously believed.
The many health benefits of Vitamin D include a scientifically proven ability to:
- Regulate your body’s absorption of calcium and phosphate – both nutrients that are required for healthy teeth and bones.
- Promote a strong immune system and reduce the risk of viral and bacterial infections (Hewison, 2011).
- Increase your overall life expectancy (Bjelakovic et al, 2011; Autier et al., 2007).
- Protect against cardiovascular disease (Wang et al., 2008)
- Reduce your risk of certain types of cancer, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer and lymphoma (Garland et al., 2006).
- Lower your risk of diabetes (Hypponen et al., 2002; Holick, 2004; Pittas et al, 2012).
- Reduce your risk of mood swings and depression (Bertone-Johnson, 2009).
- Reduce your risk of asthma (Brehm et al., 2009)
- Reduce the risk of autism (Cannell, 2008) and language disorders in children (Whitehouse et al., 2012).
What are the causes of a vitamin D deficiency?
Up until 15 years ago very few doctors linked a patient’s condition or complaint to a lack of vitamin D. However, as technology to measure vitamin D levels has advanced, it has become increasingly evident that vitamin D deficiency is widespread in the UK, Europe and the US.
Your body is designed to obtain vitamin D primarily from exposure to the sun and not via your diet. Despite the availability of a selection of food products fortified with vitamin D, few contain sufficient quantities to satisfy your Recommended Daily Intake. Natural sources of vitamin D include animal based products, such as fish, fish oils, liver, milk and eggs.
This puts the following people at an increased of a vitamin D deficiency:
- Those who avoid the sun – for example because they live in northern latitudes, are housebound, wear long clothes or head coverings (perhaps for religious reasons), or have an occupation that prevents sun exposure.
- Those who suffer from an allergy or intolerance to milk.
- Those on a strict vegan diet.
- Those with darker skin – some studies suggest that those with darker skin are at greater risk of a vitamin D deficiency, as their skin contains greater amounts of melanin, which reduces the skin’s natural ability to make vitamin D in response to sunlight exposure (it’s estimated that around 9 in 10 UK adults of South Asian origin may actually be vitamin D-deficient).
- The elderly – older people have thinner skin and are thus unable to manufacture as much vitamin D.
- Those suffering from specific medical conditions that may influence how their body manages vitamin D – e.g. Crohn’s disease, coeliac disease, and some types of liver and kidney disease.
- Those taking certain types of medication – such as carbamazepine, phenytoin, primidone, barbiturates and some anti-HIV medicines.
In rare cases those without any of the above risk factors can also become deficient in vitamin D, usually due to a problem with the way that they either manufacture or absorb vitamin D.
Symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency
The symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency are often hard to detect, especially in the early stages. If you have one or more of the following warning signs, it could be that you are suffering from a lack of vitamin D:
- Recurring colds and flus
- Muscle weakness and muscle cramps
- Joint pain
- Gum disease
- Chronic fatigue
- Frequent bone fractures
- Weight gain
The long-term repercussions of a vitamin D deficiency
It’s extremely important to acknowledge the above symptoms and take the necessary steps to address your lack of vitamin D as soon as possible. Otherwise your vitamin D deficiency could result in a number of unwelcome repercussions for your health and mental well-being, including:
- Diabetes (Hypponen et al., 2002; Holick, 2004; Pittas et al, 2012).
- Asthma (Brehm et al., 2009)
- Cardiovascular disease (Wang et al., 2008)
- Mood swings and depression (Bertone-Johnson, 2009)
- Cancer (Garland et al., 2006). According to more than 400 research papers on the topic, increased vitamin D levels can result in a 75% reduced risk of more than 15 types of cancer, whilst tumour growth can be diminished by up to 50% in those with healthy vitamin D levels. Furthermore, cancer patients with an adequate vitamin D intake have a longer life expectancy (Goodwin et al., 2009; Gross et al, 2005; Stolzenberg-Solomon et al, 2010; Peterlik et al, 2009; Marshall et al, 2012).
- Obesity (Rodrigues-Rodrigues et al., 2009) – a lack of vitamin D causes a vicious circle of weight gain and obesity, which in turn leads to a reduced absorption of vitamin D from sunlight.
How can you prevent a vitamin D deficiency?
Fortunately, there are a number of natural to ways to boost your vitamin D intake and thus prevent a vitamin D deficiency. Follow the three tips below for an immediate and demonstrable increase in your vitamin D levels.
1) Expose yourself to a SENSIBLE amount of sun
Thanks to a sharp increase in the number of skin cancer cases and a growing awareness of the damage that too much sun can do to our skin, many of us actively avoid exposing ourselves to the sun wherever possible. Yet, although unrestrained exposure to the sun can be harmful to your skin, you also need the sun in order to manufacture vitamin D. Taking care of your skin both inside and out will ensure that you get the vitamin D you need, without damaging your skin.
Taking care of your skin on the inside
Enjoy a diet rich in superfoods that help to reduce oxidative stress and prevent DNA damage caused by exposure to UV rays. In particular, incorporate antioxidant rich superfoods, such as fruits and berries (e.g. organic goji berries, blueberries, organic Incan berries, organic mulberries etc.), vegetables, organic coconut oil, organic matcha green tea and raw cacao products, in addition to superfoods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such krill oil, beans and organic walnuts.
Taking care of your skin on the outside
Enjoy regular, yet restricted unprotected exposure to the sun. To prevent your skin from burning take care to limit this to a maximum 5 to 10 minutes per day and always avoid the hours between 11.00am and 15.00pm. Of course, how long you can stay in the sun without burning will naturally depend on your skin type. Afterwards, cover up with clothing and a wide-brimmed hat and protect your skin with a high factor sun tan lotion.
2) Enjoy foods that are rich in vitamin D
There are a number of foods that are naturally rich in vitamin D. These include:
- Oily fish (such as sardines, salmon, mackerel)
- Shellfish and crustaceans
- Lean beef
- Krill oil
- Organic free range eggs
3) Take a vitamin D supplement
Those on a strict vegetarian, vegan or rawfood diet or who do not benefit from regular exposure to the sun can still supplement their vitamin D intake and thus prevent a vitamin D deficiency by taking a quality vitamin D supplement. Preferably choose for a vitamin D supplement that contains vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), as this is the same form of vitamin D that is manufactured by your body when exposed to the sun, and it is the most effective.
The UK Department of Health recommends that infants and children aged 6 months to 5 years consume a daily supplement of 7 micrograms of vitamin D per day, whilst women who are pregnant and breastfeeding, those who are not exposed to regular amounts of sunlight and the elderly (65+) take 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day.