Awareness about the importance of vitamin D for health and wellbeing has increased significantly over the past few years. Now, with the current coronavirus pandemic, anecdotal evidence suggests that individuals with low levels of vitamin D could be at increased risk of developing more severe symptoms if they do contract Covid-19.
So here I’ll cast a spotlight on vitamin D to help you understand just what it is, the role it has in health and how to ensure you’re getting sufficient doses to optimally support your wellbeing.
What is vitamin D?
Originally labelled as a vitamin, it’s now thought that vitamin D acts more like a hormone. Unlike most vitamins, it’s not essential to consume vitamin D in your diet – in fact as we’ll learn later it’s not actually that readily available in foods.
Vitamin D is made by the body from sunlight, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as the “sunshine vitamin”. It’s then converted into its active form – vitamin D3 in the liver and kidneys. So there are a lot of steps and processes required for your body to get the vitamin D it needs to function optimally.
What role does it play in our body?
Unlike other vitamins, every cell in the body has a receptor for vitamin D – suggesting it has a role to play in several body systems.
We know vitamin D helps with normal growth and maintenance of bones and teeth. Deficiency can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults.
It also plays a role in immune function, keeping it strong to help you fight off viruses and bacteria and controlling inflammation. It may even provide protection against cancer and other diseases but more research is required in this area.
What role is it thought to have against Covid-19?
It’s important to note that we still know relatively little about Covid-19 and research is limited. But as stated above we know vitamin D plays a significant role in immune system function. Several large observational studies had shown a link between vitamin D deficiency and respiratory tract infections and other studies showed that daily vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of respiratory infections. This research was conducted prior to the emergence of Coronavirus. More recent research and anecdotal evidence from scientists working on understanding this Covdi-19 suggest a correlation between low levels of vitamin D and increased risk of more severe symptoms from the virus. However, this research is still in the very early stages.
Factors which increase the risk of deficiency:
- Dark skin pigmentation
- Being elderly
- Being overweight or obese
- Low/no intake of fish and dairy
- Living in countries with little sun year-round
- Always using sunscreen
- Staying indoors
- Liver or kidney issues
Signs of deficiency
Any of these symptoms may be a sign of deficiency. If you think you may be deficient please contact your GP to request a test to confirm your status.
- Compromised immunity – frequently catching colds, bugs and illnesses, impaired wound healing
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Softening of bones/bone pain
- Depression, particularly seasonal affective disorder (SAD – depression in winter months)
- Hair loss
- Muscle pain
- Burning in mouth or throat
- Stunted growth
Sources of vitamin D
Food sources of vitamin D are limited, liver, eggs, fatty fish, and butter contain some but not sufficient levels to support health. Increasingly foods are being fortified with vitamin D to try and boost levels. In some foods like mushrooms, this is achieved by ripening them in the sunlight – a natural process to increase vitamin D levels (although by how much is debatable) and for others, it’s added in a synthetic form.
The best natural source of vitamin D is the sun. Skin must be uncovered and free from creams to be able to absorb the rays it needs to create vitamin D. The rise in warnings about covering up and wearing sunscreen to protect us from skin cancer means many people rarely get into the sun without any protection and this has caused a rise in vitamin D deficiencies amongst many populations.
We don’t want to risk skin cancer but we do need to help our body get the vitamin D it requires. So, what’s the answer? Go out into the sun for 10-30 mins each day without sunscreen on (assuming you have no other medical conditions which may make this dangerous). The length of time you need to spend outside will vary depending on your skin pigmentation as this also impacts the skin’s ability to generate vitamin D.
Many vitamin D supplements provide synthetic forms of Vitamin D2 which the body then has to convert to D3 as mentioned above. For some people, this conversion is compromised so it’s far better to supplement directly with the active form D3. I also suggest looking for a liquid vitamin D which uses oil as a carrier. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin which means it needs fats to be absorbed into the body. Please contact me if you would like to discuss this further or get a specific recommendation.
Can you have too much?
Absolutely, just as you can have too little vitamin D , too much can also be dangerous for our health. Therefore do not over supplement and speak to a professional to get your levels tested before supplementing if you’re unsure.
How to boost your levels now
1. Get into daylight without suncream on for 10-30 minutes a day to boost vitamin D levels. The time required outside will vary depending on skin pigmentation, do not allow your skin to burn.
2. Take the best quality supplement of vitamin D3 you can afford
3. Increase intake of oily fish, eggs and vitamin D fortified mushrooms – it won’t make as much difference as points 1 and 2 but it can’t hurt!