By Pamela Leland, PhD, Executive Director 

Spring has finally arrived and the sun is shining!

We can now more easily get our required daily dose of Vitamin D.

Sometimes referred to as the “sunshine vitamin” because your body naturally produces it when exposed to sunlight, Vitamin D is increasingly being recognized for its wide and varying health benefits. There is clear evidence that Vitamin D supports growth and development of bones and teeth and supports a healthy immune system. There is also a growing body of evidence that sufficient Vitamin D levels can reduce depression and boost weight loss. Maybe most importantly, however, is the increasing indication that sufficient levels of Vitamin D can maintain cognitive health and reduce the risks of dementia.

The Alzheimer’s Association reported in 2014 that an international research team documented that those with a severe Vitamin D deficiency were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s or another cognitive disease. Lead researcher, David Llewellyn, commented, “We expected to find an association between low Vitamin D levels and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but the results were surprising — we actually found that the association was twice as strong as we anticipated.”  The body of evidence regarding the connection between dementia and Vitamin D levels is still evolving, however, given the increasing rates of dementia and the economic consequences of this disease, interest in the research community is significant and growing.

In addition to the important benefits listed above, Sarah Klein, writing on Prevention.com in 2017, promotes the following, more specific benefits of Vitamin D.

  1. Vitamin D makes you less likely to fall at home.

One in three older adults living at home will take a spill each year. But Vitamin D supplements seem to help reduce that risk. A small study of homebound adults found that those adults taking Vitamin D had about half the number of falls as those taking a placebo.

  1. It may ward off vision damage.

The main reason our vision starts to slip after 50 is because of what’s called age-related macular degeneration. A recent study by University of Buffalo researchers found that women with a Vitamin D deficiency had a much higher risk of age-related macular degeneration – as much at 6 times higher – than those with sufficient levels of Vitamin D.

  1. Vitamin D might stop that weird muscle spasm you’ve been trying to ignore.

One of Vitamin D’s crucial roles in our bodies is keeping our muscles functioning and strong by helping them absorb calcium. Klein writes that “While there’s a lot we don’t know about the little muscle abnormalities we call cramps, spasms, and twitches, it seems like not getting enough Vitamin D may be one cause of those annoyances.” Vitamin D’s benefits also seem to address the pain from fibromyalgia.

  1. People with enough Vitamin D are at a lower risk of heart disease and benefit from high levels of HDL or “good cholesterol.”
  2. It can slow weight gain. A Journal of Women’s Health study of more than 4,600 women 65 or older, found that those with insufficient Vitamin D levels gained 2 more pounds over 4.5 years than those with enough D.
  3. It could help you prevent chronic headaches. While the specific link between headaches and the “sunshine vitamin” remains unclear, some researchers believe the anti-inflammatory properties of Vitamin D may help combat the inflammation that triggers migraines and headaches.

Clearly there are benefits to Vitamin D but most of us don’t get what we need. Sunlight alone is not going to give you the levels that you need. Recent research indicates that 42% of us are Vitamin D deficient.

One reason is that there are few foods that naturally produce or include Vitamin D … which is why most of us get the vitamin as an additive in dairy products, cereals and/or orange juice. Food sources where it is naturally occurring include: fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel, and salmon; beef liver; cheese; and egg yolks.  It is unfortunate that we are often discouraged from eating some of these because of higher cholesterol.

Another factor is that most of us have lifestyles that keep us indoors. Too much time indoors and living in areas that limit sunlight (e.g., areas with high pollution and tall buildings that block the sun) are also risk factors. Using too much sunscreen can also limit the skin’s ability to produce Vitamin D.

Do you wonder if you might have a Vitamin D deficiency?  There are some symptoms that might be an indication:

  • A general sense of not feeling well, feeling tired, feeling achy.
  • Severe bone or muscle pain or weakness that may cause difficulty climbing stairs or getting up from the floor or a low chair, or cause you to walk with a waddling gait.
  • Stress fractures, especially in your legs, pelvis, and hips.

Many physicians will check Vitamin D levels as part of routine blood work. If you haven’t had it checked recently and experience any of these symptoms, you may want to request a blood test from your physician.

If you are diagnosed with a Vitamin D deficiency, your doctor will likely recommend you take daily vitamin D supplements. If you have a severe deficiency, your physician may instead recommend high-dose Vitamin D tablets or liquids.

While it is clear that most of us would benefit from more Vitamin D, there seems to be some debate as to what is the right daily dose. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) currently recommends men and women get 600 IU (15 mcg) of Vitamin D a day, but recent research suggests those guidelines are way too low. The IOM currently lists 4,000 IU a day as the highest amount of Vitamin D you could take and still be safe; others however suggest that we might need more like 7,000 to truly reap the vitamin’s biggest benefits. The first step, however, is getting a blood test and talking with your physician to determine the appropriate dosage in response.

Published in the Daily Local New on Monday, May 14, 2018 

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