An estimated 1 billion people worldwide suffer from Vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency. That number includes 40% of all Americans. Those numbers are scary since Vitamin D, sometimes known as the “sunshine vitamin,” is critical to physical and mental health and it is not difficult for most people to get adequate amounts. It is present in a few foods, but it is primarily synthesized in our skin in the presence of sunlight. Depending on where you live and your lifestyle, vitamin D production might decrease or be completely absent during the winter months. Sunscreen usage also can decrease vitamin D production. Many factors lead to the current worldwide problem with low vitamin D, and it is leading to significant issues in physical and mental health.
Vitamin D and Physical Health
Vitamin D is necessary for building and maintaining healthy bones. That’s because calcium, the primary component of bone, can only be absorbed by your body when vitamin D is present. Vitamin D deficiency was first discovered in relation to bone health and development. The disease historically associated with deficiency is rickets, the softening and weakening of bones in children, usually because of an extreme and prolonged vitamin D deficiency.
While rickets is uncommon in modern America, there is a lot of newer research about other effects of deficiency. People deficient in vitamin D may suffer from generalized body fatigue or muscle weakness, bone pain, respiratory problems like asthma (especially in children), tiredness, psoriasis, and chronic pain. Sufferers on various autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis report that bringing vitamin D levels back to normal is a “game changer” for them.
Vitamin D and the Brain
Studies have linked low vitamin D to numerous disorders such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, and metabolic disorders including diabetes. Cognitive impairment, dementia, psychosis, and autism have recently been added to the list. Removing vitamin D from the diet of healthy adult mice caused a significant drop in their ability to remember and learn. Researchers think that this is because lack of vitamin D weakens the physical “scaffolding” of the brain and reduces the number and quality of neuronal connections. Studies also show a strong link between dementia and vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D receptors are widespread in the brain, and the vitamin’s biologically active form has been shown to have protective effects, including clearing amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. A very large, long term international study found that those who were severely deficient in vitamin D were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s and dementia than those who had adequate levels. Participants who were only mildly deficient had an increased risk of 53%, while those who were severely deficient had a 125% increased risk of developing dementia. Those numbers alone should make us more diligent about getting enough vitamin D!
Vitamin D and Mental Health
Vitamin D is also critical in warding off depression and other mental health issues. Vitamin D affects the levels of serotonin in the brain, which affects your mood. If you’re feeling cranky, it might be because you’re not producing enough serotonin. Vitamin D can help moods stay balanced by ensuring your brain is working with all the materials it needs to stay energized and focused. Sunlight plays a key role in both seasonal depression and vitamin D production, and light therapy can be used to deal with depression caused by vitamin D deficiencies because the two are so intertwined.
Vitamin D has even been proven to have positive effects similar to antidepressants and may reduce overall blood pressure, an important role for those who suffer from anxiety. This could be why human beings have always gravitated towards the warmer coastal climates (i.e. the beach) for recreation and restoration after a long, cold winter.
How to Get Your Vitamin D?
Getting adequate sunlight on your skin will produce vitamin D, and plenty of sunlight is important for a lot of aspects of physical and mental health. Sadly, many of us don’t get enough sunlight to produce health-enhancing levels of Vitamin D, so we need to find other sources. Foods that are naturally rich in vitamin D include fatty fish such salmon, sardines, tuna, and cod liver oil (which has the highest levels of the vitamin found in food). Foods that are “fortified” with vitamin D include milk, orange juice, and yogurt. However, for many people, the most reliable way to get ample amounts of this critical nutrient is to take a supplement. According to NIH, the recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 400 international units (IU) for children up to age 12 months, 600 IU for ages 1 to 70 years, and 800 IU for people over 70 years. It is important to note that vitamin D is now regarded as being “hormone-like” and its interactions with drugs can be complicated. People on prescription meds for high blood pressure, psoriasis, and Lipitor should check with their doctor for correct dosage and drug interactions.
Making sure that you get enough vitamin D is what I like to call “low hanging fruit” – it is one of the easiest things you can do to improve your physical and emotional health. Give it a try – you will feel the difference.