Much of the vitamin D our body requires can be obtained naturally through sufficient sun exposure. However, despite its availability, vitamin D deficiency is still a worldwide concern. In fact, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey concluded that about 41.6% of American adult population has lower vitamin D levels than the ideal. A separate report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that 32% of the total US population, including children, have vitamin D Deficiency. Why is it so common? What are the symptoms? What can we do about it? Let’s learn more about vitamin D in the following sections:
Get to Know Vitamin D
Vitamin D or the “sunshine vitamin” actually has two forms – D2 and D3. Ergocalciferol or Vitamin D2 is obtained by consuming foods or plant materials that have been exposed to sunlight and UV radiation. Vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol, on the other hand, is formed in the skin upon contact with sunlight. The process converts cholesterol into an active form of vitamin D found in both humans and animals. Vitamin D3 is the form that is most easily absorbed by the body when taking a supplement.
The discovery that most tissues and cells in the body actually have vitamin D receptors paved the way for more intensive research to be done on the subject. Active vitamin D enters cells and attaches itself to the receptor. This stimulates the cell to make proteins that we need for everyday function. More studies about the nature, mechanism and benefits of vitamin D showed its tremendous effect on numerous body organs and processes. It is proven to influence our immune system, calcium absorption, phosphate usage, muscular and bone health, and cognitive abilities. It is crucial for the development of the bones, intestines, and kidney as well as optimal functioning. Vitamin D is also believed to be an effective complimentary treatment for diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Primary sources of vitamin D are sunlight, food, and supplements. Therefore, the lack of those plus the excessive use of certain medications like laxatives, steroids, seizure-control drugs, anti-tuberculosis medication, and weight loss drugs can deplete the available vitamin D your body can use.
The length of time an individual needs to spend under the sun depends on a number of factors:
- Skin Color
- Use of Sunscreen
- Cloud cover and pollution
- Location and elevation
- Time of Day
A blood test for 25- hydroxyvitamin D (25[OH]D)would confirm if your vitamin D level is within the normal range. Different references may give different values for the “ideal” vitamin D levels. Sufficient levels used to mean having more than 20 nanograms/ml. However, a research published in The Examiner of Alternative Medicine pegged the most ideal serum concentrations of 25(OH)D ranges from 30-40 nanograms/ml. A person with less than that would be considered deficient of the vitamin. For certain groups (mentioned below), higher serum concentrations would be beneficial.
As for food, both synthetic and natural vitamin D can be found in natural and processed goods. However, there are very few food sources fortified with the vitamin. Some of them include cow’s milk, cereal, products derived from grain, certain types of fishes, and cod liver oil among others. Vitamin D3 is going to have better absorption so look for that form on your label. And if you are relying on food for your only source, you’ll need to check labels as well in order to know if you are reaching the recommended daily vitamin D intake of 4,000 IU.
10 Benefits of Vitamin D
1. Vitamin D is necessary for the absorption and use of calcium.
Calcium is popularly known to be good for the bones. Unknown to many, it is also needed for the proper function of the nerves, muscles and the heart. This important mineral is absorbed by the body with the help of vitamin D via the formation of the hormone calcitrol. The Vitamin D hormone functions in the bones, intestine and kidney to initiate the transport of calcium and phosphorus upon demand. Although Vitamin D is not the only component responsible for the transfer reactions, the body is forced to take calcium from its storage and existing bones when the amount of vitamin D is not enough. This may lead to osteoporosis and low bone mass.
2. Vitamin D is crucial for the metabolism of phosphorus.
Unlike calcium and vitamin D, phosphate deficiency is not common. However, we should still make sure that the delicate balance of serum phosphate within the body is maintained. This is needed for the sustenance of numerous biological processes like energy production, bone mineralization, cell signalling, and the regulation of acid-base homeostasis. The active form of vitamin D together with parathyroid growth hormone, and fibroblast growth factor 23 play a crucial role in regulating it – modulating the amount of phosphate the body absorbs, reabsorbs, and metabolizes.
3. Vitamin D may prevent ovarian, colon, pancreatic, prostate, and breast cancer.
One of the functions of Vitamin D receptors is the regulation of signalling pathways which our body use to monitor if there are abnormal growths, tumors, or inflammation. If there is not enough vitamin D in the body, this regulation process is dramatically decreased, leaving the cells prone to abnormalities. Vitamin D deficiency makes a person 83 to 150% more likely to develop cancer. On the other hand, those with high vitamin D levels have lower cancer risk.
Women suffering from estrogen-dependent breast and ovarian cancer can greatly benefit from vitamin D as it decreases the amount of enzyme used by the body to make estrogen in the cancer-affected tissue. It has been shown to stop aggravation of malignancies and increase tumor cell death. Studies published in Reviews in Urology demonstrated how vitamin D can also be used for the management of prostate cancer. Aside from its anti-tumor abilities, it also stops the spreading of cancer cells to other parts of the body. In addition, there are experiments that showed the same promising results for patients with colon cancer and pancreatic cancer.
4. Vitamin D lowers diabetes risk.
Vitamin D receptors are found all over the body but especially in the pancreas’ insulin-producing cells. This, plus the receptors’ presence in fat, muscle and liver tissues make it a significant influencer in blood glucose regulation. Studies show that patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes have significantly lower levels of Vitamin D compared to healthy individuals. They also have decreased number of insulin and vitamin D receptors in the brain. Vitamin D deficiency makes a person more likely to be insulin resistant and one with insulin resistance has more than double the chance to develop a full-blown type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, sufficient amounts of the vitamin slows the progression from pre-diabetes to diabetes, decreases fasting blood sugar, reduces visceral fat and body mass index, and lessens inflammation.
5. Vitamin D may help treat osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis literally means “porous bone” and is characterized by the progressive loss of bone density. A person with this condition is usually prone to fracture and injuries as the bones become brittle and weak. Common causes of osteoporosis are hormonal changes, or calcium and vitamin D deficiency. Therefore, aside from vitamin D’s indirect participation in strengthening the bones via the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, it also has a direct impact on patients suffering from the condition. Vitamin D is not just good for the prevention of fractures and osteoporosis; it helps in accelerating bone healing according to studies cited by the Geriatric Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation Journal.
6. Vitamin D improves dental health.
High vitamin D levels are associated with lower risk of tooth loss, periodontitis and dental caries. Aside from mediating calcium absorption and maintaining bone density, vitamin D also helps prevent these dental issues because of its anti-inflammatory properties and by stimulating the production of antimicrobial peptides. Periodontitis is a gum disease characterized by the swelling and inflammation of the gums while dental carries, also known as tooth decay, is caused by bacteria that causes the demineralization of the teeth’s hard tissues.
7. Vitamin D is antibacterial.
Though the immune system-boosting effects of vitamin D have been recognized for many years, it was only recently that scientists discovered that vitamin D targets and up-regulates expression of a gene called cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide (CAMP) gene. This gene plays a crucial role in repelling infections including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. There is also increasing data linking vitamin D deficiency with immune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Chron’s disease and diabetes. These underscore the importance of vitamin D for optimal immune response. Vitamin D supplementation increases the number of regulatory T-cells to restore immune function and preventing overactive response. Vitamin D helps treat a number of diseases including tuberculosis, pneumonia, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
8. Vitamin D boosts mood and improves cognitive performance.
Separate studies on the efficacy of vitamin D in preventing cognitive decline show very promising statistics. Some of the conclusions are:
- Long-term studies show that the vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of cognitive decline by up to 60%.
- Vitamin D deficiency increases risk of developing dementia by 77%.
- Low vitamin D levels increase the risk of non-Alzheimer’s dementia by nearly 20-fold.
- Parkinson’s Disease patients may benefit from vitamin D by reducing the severity of the condition.
- Vitamin D can also reverse neurodegenerative decline when used as a conjunctive treatment.
Aside from lowering the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, the sunshine vitamin is also known to alleviate depression. Aside from the fact that basking under the morning sun can help make your day brighter, vitamin D regulates the synthesis of serotonin also known as the happy hormone.
9. Vitamin D helps prevent heart disease.
The correlation between vitamin D deficiency and heart disease is well-supported by numerous studies. This is because the various parts of the circulatory system are rich in vitamin D receptors, making them dependent on Vitamin D for optimum performance. Vitamin D and heart health are interrelated so much so that the vitamin is now recognized as an independent predictor for diseases of the heart and blood vessels. Statistics show that people with vitamin D deficiency have more than double the chance of having clogged arteries and are 42% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease. High levels of vitamin D, on the other hand, normalize blood pressure, improve blood flow, decrease aortic stiffness, and reduce triglycerides.
10. Vitamin D strengthens muscles.
Optimal muscle function and vitamin D levels are directly proportional. Individuals with high vitamin D levels have increased muscle protein synthesis, energy concentration, strength, jump power, exercise capacity and overall endurance. The vitamin even helps prevent myopathy or muscle disease, inflammation, and pain which makes recovery faster and easier. This is why many athletes are encouraged to supplement vitamin D while doing strength training. Numerous studies show that the combo is proven to decrease waist-to-hip ratio, a measurement that can be an indicator of a person’s risk and likelihood to develop diabetes and heart disease.
Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency
Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are often general and may be misconstrued as an indication of other diseases. Below are some of the many symptoms that may be experienced:
2. Bone and Back Pain
3. Foggy brain
5. Muscle weakness
6. Low Immunity
If you have any or a combination of the conditions listed above, it is best to consult a medical practitioner and have yourself tested for accurate diagnosis and early treatment.
Vitamin D Supplementation
On top of moderate sun exposure and balanced diet, supplementation is one sure way to make sure that you have the ideal dose of vitamin D for your daily needs. This option is especially beneficial for specific groups or individuals who are either limited by their mobility and location, or are in need of an extra oomph on their vitamin D supply. Among those who will profit most are:
Pregnant and breastfeeding women
Nursing babies and those inside the womb rely much on the vitamins and nutrients they get from their mothers. It is important that mothers have sufficient vitamin D levels not just for their babies but for themselves as well.
Mobility may be a great challenge as we age. Walking outside and eating nutrient-rich organic food may not always be possible for various reasons. This age group is also the most at-risk of developing bone, neurodegenerative, and muscular diseases – conditions that vitamin D help to prevent.
Individuals with dark skin
Melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color, can prevent UV rays from penetrating the skin. Though it can be an advantage, individuals with darker skin color may be vitamin D deficient as they need more time under the sun to get the daily dose of D that they need.
People in locations without enough sunlight
Vitamin D deficiency is very common in some countries in Europe because of their location and elevation. It is also quite common that those with colder climates do not get enough vitamin D from the sun or from their diet.
Weightlifters and competitive athletes
Vitamin D is a natural way to increase stamina, boost muscle strength, and reduce downtime. It’s the perfect partner to a healthy diet and physical training.
People with autoimmune disease
Vitamin D boosts the immune system and helps prevent it from going on overdrive, just as it happens when someone has autoimmune disease (AI). Although the exact causes of AI haven’t been exhaustively identified, considerable amount of research has associated vitamin D deficiency to several autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes mellitus, and others. It has been said that the vitamin interacts with the specific gene for those diseases. To know if you are at risk of AI and to learn more about autoimmune disease, click here.
What’s the Best Form of Vitamin D?
In choosing the best supplement, you may come across write-ups pitting vitamin D2 and D3 against each other. Both definitely have their own merits. But what do we choose when supplementing? Few studies like one published by The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism states that vitamin D2’s potency is less than one third that of vitamin D3 in humans. D2 even has shorter duration of action relative to cholecalciferol (D3). Another study published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also supports this claim, adding that vitamin D3 increases serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D, the active form of vitamin D, more efficiently than vitamin D2.
D3 and K2: The Inseparable Duo
Another important fact about Vitamin D, specifically D3, is its interdependence with vitamin K2. Numerous studies show that D3 and K2 are an inseparable duo. As D3 boosts bone health by helping you absorb calcium, vitamin K “drives” that calcium to the intended areas to avoid build-up and deposits in the wrong places like the arteries. In fact, calcium supplements may work to our disadvantage without vitamin D and vitamin K2. A research study on the analysis of calcium supplements showed that it increases the risk of myocardial infarction and cardiovascular events. D3 and K2 deficiency may also lead to porcelain gallbladder. This probability can be lessened if calcium will be taken with a combination of vitamins D3 and K2. It is also important to check what type of vitamin K2 is in a supplement as there are several different forms available. The most potent and long-acting form of vitamin K2 is MK7.
With that in mind, you can make a more informed decision in choosing your D supplement. One particular brand I would recommend is Genestra. They make it in a pre-digested or emulsified form which makes it easier for people with impaired fat digestion. The combination of D3 and K2 with any brand is always more expensive than D3 alone. K2 just costs more if you’re getting the right form. D2 Mulsion contains 1000 IUs per drop. D3 K2 Mulsion – Vitamin D and K2 Combination provides 2000 IUs of vitamin D3 and 180 mcg of K2 (MK7) in 10 drops. So you would take 10 drops of the combo and 3 or more drops of the D3 to get up to the dose of D3 you want.
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