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Vitamin D Deficiency: Symptoms, Causes & Foods to Eat


Cabin fever. Wintertime blues. Seasonal Affective Disorder.

There are many names for the vague set of symptoms commonly experienced in the middle of winter, especially among those who live north of the equator. Often, these symptoms can be attributed to a lack of vitamin D.

Since we naturally make about 90 percent of our vitamin D from sunlight exposure to our skin, vitamin D is often referred to as the “Sunshine Vitamin.” During the long sunny days of midsummer, sun exposure, and specifically exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, helps us produce most of the vitamin D that we need to stay strong and healthy.

When your skin receives exposure to unobstructed sunlight, a complex chemical reaction occurs, causing the cholesterol-based oils on your skin to transform and create a vitamin D precursor molecule. This chemical is then absorbed by your skin and transported into the bloodstream, where it is captured by the liver. Your liver adds an oxygen and hydrogen molecule to the precursor chemical, thus transforming it into 25-hydroxyvitamin D, or simply, vitamin D. Now, your body can utilize the vitamin in its new form, and proceed to build healthy bones and teeth, a strong immune system, and optimal hormonal balance.

This system works wonderfully for those of us who are able to get enough sun exposure every day, but since many of us have traded farm work for office work, and long sunny days at the beach for TV binge-sessions, we’ve effectively shorted ourselves on this important vitamin.

vitamin D deficiency

According to the Vitamin D Council, a nonprofit organization that works to educate the public on vitamin D, sun exposure, and health, symptoms of vitamin D deficiency may include:

  • Feeling “blue” or depressed, for no obvious reason
  • Joint pain, bone pain, and dull muscle aches
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue and low energy levels
  • Excessive sweating, especially on the forehead, after light activity or while at rest
  • Brain fog
  • Low immunity, easily catching colds and flu bugs
  • Poor hair growth, lack of luster, and brittle fingernails

If deficiency is allowed to continue for too long, it can result in more serious health problems, such as osteomalacia (a dangerous softening of bones) and rickets (especially in children), as well as serious dental problems, such as weakening of the jaw bones, cavities, and loss of tooth enamel leading to decay.

Although deficiency of this important vitamin can have disastrous effects on health, it is also possible to have too much of a good thing. Although it’s rare, over-supplementation of vitamin D can cause toxicity, known as hypervitaminosis D.

Symptoms of over-supplementation include kidney stones and hypercalcemia (a buildup of too much calcium in the blood). Fortunately, it is almost impossible to overdose on vitamin D if you are getting your daily dose from sunlight and diet, or taking the recommended dose of D3 supplements. Most cases of vitamin D toxicity have occurred in those who were taking 5-10 times the recommended daily dose during a period of several months or years.

While deficiency is clearly a common concern for us these days, it’s not all bad news. There are plenty of ways to manage low vitamin D levels and help raise them naturally to support long-term health and vitality.

Why is Vitamin D Deficiency Common? 

It all comes down to sunlight. If you live in a northern region, where wintertime is long and dark and summers are short, you are likely to have some level of vitamin D deficiency, whether or not you are experiencing the common symptoms.

“In my practice,” said Dr. Frank Lipman, the director of wellness and integrative medicine at the Eleven-Eleven Wellness Center in New York City, “over 80 percent of patients whose vitamin D levels I check are deficient. We are not exactly sure why this is happening, apart from the fact that we spend too much time indoors and when we go out into the sun, we slather sunscreen on ourselves. Whatever the reason, the reality is we have a major epidemic on our hands.”

In fact, there are multiple reasons for vitamin D deficiency. You may also be at high risk of deficiency if you have a darker skin tone, as pigment-producing melanin reduces the skin’s ability to absorb vitamin D from the sun. This is a helpful adaptation if you live near the equator where the sun can be quite intense, but a liability if you find yourself in a northern climate where the sun’s rays are limited.

Your body’s ability to make optimal levels of vitamin D can also be hindered if you shun the sun, which many of us do without even considering the consequences to our health. We spend most of our time indoors, working under fluorescent lights or worse, working night-shifts. We slather on sunscreen before heading outside, or cover up with long sleeves, sunglasses, and a hat before outings on bright, sunny days.

Soaking up the sun and fresh air is almost always a healthy choice, but the only way to know if you have a true vitamin D deficiency, requiring treatment, is to have a blood test done. If you don’t want to go through your doctor, there are independent laboratories that can do a blood spot test, which you can order for yourself. If you would rather skip the needle prick altogether, you can still make smart choices to help optimize your vitamin D levels naturally, and safely, year round.

sunshine vitamin D deficiency

How Does Vitamin D Help the Body?

Vitamin D serves a number of vital functions in the human body. Adequate levels of vitamin D are required by our bodies to maintain hormonal balance, optimal calcium absorption and bone strength, a properly regulated immune system, and a healthy neuro-muscular system.

However, for many years now, public health officials and doctors have advised that we reduce sun exposure as much as possible, as it has long been assumed that regular exposure to the sun’s UV rays are responsible for skin cancer and premature aging. This advice has helped to perpetuate a vitamin D deficiency throughout the population – and has been soundly refuted by new research.

In fact, sun exposure (and the corresponding increase of vitamin D levels) have been shown to be strongly preventative against many forms of disease, including the deadly melanoma skin cancers, which were wrongly attributed to too much sun exposure for so many years.

Dr. Edward Giovannucci, professor of medicine at Harvard University, recently made the case for vitamin D’s effectiveness in preventing cancer during his keynote lecture for the American Association for Cancer Research in Anaheim, Calif.

“I would challenge anyone to find a factor that has such consistent anti-cancer benefits as vitamin D,” said Giovannucci during his address. “The data are really quite remarkable.”

sun exposure vitamin D deficiency

Amazingly, vitamin D deficiency may also be the reason that you get the flu each season! A recent study, published in the journal Nature Immunology, detailed the fascinating link between low vitamin D levels and a poor immune response to infections, such as the common cold or flu.

Study co-author Carsten Geisler recently told FoodConsumer.org that they observed T-Cells, the building blocks of the immune system, sending out vitamin D receptor molecules as the first step before responding to invasion by the flu virus. He explained that when these receptor molecules are able to find, and bind to, sufficient levels of vitamin D, then the “T-Cells can get started.” On the other hand, if there is not enough vitamin D present in the system, the immune system fails to activate, and the person becomes sick with flu symptoms.

While moderate levels of sun exposure every day can have a strongly preventive effect against diseases ranging from the flu to cancer, the health effects disappear if you are regularly getting sunburned.

Sunburns, or overexposure to UV rays, have a devastating impact on your health, and can cause an increased risk of cancer, as well as prematurely aging your skin.

A good rule of thumb for sun exposure is to start slowly, and let your skin build resistance in the early spring, gradually increasing your time outside every day. Start out with just 10-15 minutes of bare skin exposure, and cover up or go inside as soon as your skin begins to tingle and take on a pink hue. Add 5-10 minutes each day, until you can stay out in the sunshine for an extended amount of time without burning. As with most things in life, the key is moderation!

natural supplements vitamin D

Photo by John H.

How Can Vitamin D Levels be Optimized?

Although sunshine is the best strategy for vitamin D optimization, it is not the only source. Whether we like it or not, 4-6 months out of the year, our time outside in the sun tends to decrease. That is where our diet – the foods we choose and the supplements we take – can help boost our vitamin D levels.

Research shows that nutritional supplements are helpful in raising deficient levels of vitamin D. Look for a quality D3 that is naturally derived and easily absorbed. The high potency Daily D by Coral LLC is paired with an array of important, bio-available minerals, including calcium. Another great, quality source of vitamin D are the Nordic Naturals line of D3 and cod liver oil supplements. Cod liver oil is a potent, natural source of vitamin D and has been utilized by generations of health-conscious people in northern climates.

It is important to use a proper dosage to treat deficiency, as well as to avoid potentially dangerous overdose of this important nutrient. However, dosage recommendations by public health authorities often fall far short of the levels actually needed by your body.

Dr. Robert Heaney, M.D., is a professor of Endocrinology at Creighton University School of Medicine, and the author of more than 70 published peer-reviewed studies detailing the importance of vitamin D for cancer prevention, longevity, and overall well-being. According to Heaney, the upper safe intake level for vitamin D3 supplements is 10,000 IU per day, considerably higher than previous recommendations.

In most cases, the supplement is best absorbed with food, but new research shows that it is also important to pair your D3 with a quality calcium and vitamin K2 supplement, as they work together and can become imbalanced if not used in combination. Some of the best bio-available calcium supplements available are coral-based calcium, sustainably sourced from fossilized coral deposits. Some of them even include vitamin D in properly balanced amounts for perfect absorption and optimal levels of both nutrients, working in synergy.

vitamin D deficiency

Which Foods Contain Vitamin D?

Aside from safe sun exposure and quality supplements, there are a few foods that can help raise sluggish vitamin D levels, any time of the year.

Some of the foods that offer the highest levels of naturally-occurring vitamin D include:

  • Sun-dried mushrooms (such as shiitake, morel, and crimini varieties)
  • Wild-caught fish (especially oily fish such as salmon and sardines)
  • Egg yolks from pasture-raised hens
  • Grass-fed beef or calf liver

vitamin D deficiency

You can also find moderate levels of vitamin D in many fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals and vitamin-added dairy products, but the added vitamin D is often of the synthetic D2 type, instead of the naturally occurring D3. D2 has been shown to be less effective, and possibly even toxic, although there has been some debate about that among experts. As is true of most topics regarding health and nutrition, it is better to opt for natural, organic ingredients whenever possible.

From Feeling Blue to Feeling Bright

If you are feeling a little under the weather, or even if you are dealing with more pressing health concerns, you may find it well worth your while to work on boosting your vitamin D levels. Even if you enjoy perfect health, ensuring adequate levels of vitamin D may help you more than you’d suspect; slashing your cancer risk, boosting your immune system, keeping your hormones in perfect balance, and helping you feel bright and sunny on even the darkest winter day.