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Vitamin D deficiency has become an emerging health crisis. Many people living in northern climes are simply not getting enough of this essential nutrient, particularly in winter. According to a study published in the journal PLOS One, February appears to be the worst month of all. Some experts assert that this annual slump in Vitamin D plays a role in leading to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as “winter blues.” Worldwide, as many as a billion people don’t get enough vitamin D.
The problem is making itself known in a number of ways. More people are suffering from rickets, a bone disease linked to vitamin D deficiency. In addition, low D levels may increase the risk for heart disease, tuberculosis and cancer, particularly breast cancer.
But what’s causing the problem? Why is vitamin D different from other vitamins? Part of the difficulty is that it’s difficult to find in food. Most people get this nutrient from dairy, which could be a real problem for those who are vegan or lactose intolerant.
Our main source of vitamin D is the body’s production when we’re exposed to UV (ultraviolet) sunlight. But this source also can be impaired. First, the sun isn’t always shining. Second, when the sun is shining, many of us wear sunscreen, which blocks skin cancer-causing UV rays but also hampers the body’s ability to manufacture vitamin D. However, it’s important to note that not all sunlight is created equal in relationship to vitamin D: The intense sunshine near the equator is more liable to stimulate the body’s vitamin D production. In northern countries, the UV light is weaker and your body may not be able to use it to make this substance.
Why vitamin D is important
Vitamin D is involved with the regulation of calcium in the body and helps with bone calcification: That’s why reduced levels can lead to the soft bones associated with rickets.
There may also be a link between vitamin D deficiency and diabetes. It’s long been known that low levels are associated with the disease. However, the link is somewhat tenuous and more research needs to be done to clarify the relationship.
Vitamin D is also associated with strong immunity — it helps white blood cells mature. People who are constantly coming down with colds or flus should have their healthcare practitioner check their vitamin D level with a simple blood test. It’s a critical nutrient that functions in numerous ways, influencing hormones, brain chemistry, interacting with our genes to influence cellular signaling, growth and repair processes.
And while there are home tests that can check for vitamin D deficiency, it’s a good idea to get a doctor’s input, even if you handle the testing yourself. Other deficiencies, such as low magnesium, can impair your ability to process vitamin D, so these may need to be screened for as well.
Because vitamin D is both ingested and manufactured by the body, getting enough can be a complicated matter. There simply aren’t that many D-rich foods. A number of them, milk for example, are actually fortified with the nutrient.
The best source is wild, cold water fish like salmon and sardines. Cod liver oil is an exceptionally good source. In addition to being quite high in vitamin D, fish provide all-important omega-3 fatty acids.
Egg yolks are also a good source, so you don’t get vitamin D when you eat an egg white omelet. Beef liver is similarly rich in the vitamin.
Culinary mushrooms can provide vitamin D, particularly shiitake. One study found that medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi, ganoderma and lentinus, are also good sources, particularly when they’ve been exposed to sunlight. At the same time, mushrooms are also quite good at modulating immunity.
Sunlight and supplements
Because of the difficulty of consuming vitamin D in food, it’s important to get out into the sunlight for 15-20 minutes a day without sunscreen, when possible. Even though we’ve been told to avoid exposure to prevent skin cancer, it only takes a short amount of sun daily exposure to allow the skin to make enough vitamin D. After we get our dose, natural sunscreens may help protect against skin cancer and photo-aging.
UV lamps can help, but I don’t recommend them. They increase skin damage and cancer risk and there are easier ways to get vitamin D. However, if you want to use a UV lamp, be sure to consult a physician first.
And finally, there are many vitamin D supplements. These can help significantly and are often how we treat people with severe deficiencies. Again, caution is in order; you need balanced amounts.
If you are considering supplementation, check your blood levels of vitamin D first and consult with your doctor. Vitamin D3 is the recommended type of vitamin D for supplementation.
Generally, I recommend a combination of strategies to increase levels of this critical nutrient. More vitamin D-rich foods, more sunlight and careful supplementation can go a long way.
For more seasonal health information, download a free copy of my seasonal wellness guide, here.