If you’re anything like me, you may think that taking vitamins is totally unnecessary. I mean, sure, it probably can’t hurt you, but in the long run, it’s probably not helping much either, right? Paying $20 or more for a bottle of vitamins feels a bit like I’m getting scammed by some company that's counting its money while suckers like me aren’t getting any healthier.
But according to a growing body of research, odds are, you (and I) are vitamin D deficient. In fact, research from Harvard notes that worldwide, a shocking one billion people don’t have adequate levels of vitamin D in their bodies. Another study claims that half of the entire world’s population is vitamin D deficient.
And although those are troubling statistics all by themselves, what’s even more disconcerting is the fact that doctors are just now beginning to realize how dangerous vitamin D deficiency can be. Assuming that most adults have been functioning with too little of vitamin D for years, the aftermath of a life spent suffering from the deficiency is just now coming to light, and research has shown that low levels of vitamin D can be linked to a variety of medical conditions including chronic migraines, asthma, depression, bone disorders, and even cancer.
Clearly it’s more important than ever to recognize when we are at risk for vitamin D deficiency, for our own health and for our families. Here’s what you need to know about vitamin D deficiency, who’s at risk, and what you can do about it.
What is vitamin D deficiency?
Vitamin D deficiency can be caused by a variety of factors, explains Vanessa Carr, MS, RDN, LDN, clinical nutrition manager at Kate Farms, Inc. She pointed to the following culprits in a HealthyWay interview:
–Low dietary intake due to the absence of fatty fish, fortified milk, or fortified cereals in a person's diet
–Lack of supplemental intake or low supplemental intake in light of a diet that is low or poor in sources of vitamin D
–Limited sun exposure for those living in northern climates where it is cloudy or occupational and lifestyle circumstances mean they are not outside often enough
–Poor intestinal absorption of vitamin D from dietary or supplemental sources because of a medical condition like cystic fibrosis or inflammatory bowel disease
What makes vitamin D deficiency especially dangerous is that those who suffer from it may not be aware that their levels are affecting their health.
Physical symptoms of vitamin D deficiency may not be apparent at all or may show up only when a complication becomes very severe, as in cases of rickets in children or after a routine blood draw for an adult.
Who’s at risk for vitamin D deficiency?
Breastfeeding Moms and Their Babies
Breastfed babies and nursing mothers are particularly at risk for a vitamin D deficiency, and unfortunately, many mothers may not even realize it. Rebecca Wanosik’s shocking story is an example of just how devastating a vitamin D deficiency can be for a mother and her baby.
I was unaware during my pregnancy that I was severely deficient.
Wanosik thought she was taking her 9-week-old daughter to the doctor for help, guidance, and some answers as to why her baby appeared to be in excruciating pain. Instead, Wanosik started down an almost year-long journey of being accused of abusing her children, ultimately having child protective services take all five of her children away from her and her husband.
After an exam revealed that the baby had fractured ribs and a fractured arm, doctors immediately assumed that Wanosik was abusing the baby. But she was not. It took nine long months, but Wanosik and her husband were eventually able to prove that their daughter’s injuries were not caused by them; instead, they were the result of a severe vitamin D deficiency.
Wanosik explains that her baby’s deficiency was actually caused by her own undiagnosed D deficiency. Because she, as the mom, was unknowingly deficient in vitamin D during and after her pregnancy, her decision to breastfeed resulted in her daughter being deficient, too.
Those breastfed infants who may be hospitalized long term or born during winter months can be at a higher risk.
That, in combination with a rare genetic disorder her baby had, led to the injuries—and also the nightmare that became her life as her children were taken from her.
“I was unaware during my pregnancy that I was severely deficient,” Wanosik notes. “My [vitamin D] level was only five, which is nearly undetectable.”
Wanosik would eventually discover that she, like many other people in the world, was vitamin D deficient because of a combination of factors: not getting enough sun exposure, not supplementing, and despite eating a healthy diet, still not consuming enough dairy or vitamin D–fortified food to meet her and her baby's vitamin D needs. In other words, she was pretty normal and it wasn’t enough.
Today Wanosik and her children have been reunited and she works on spreading awareness about how vitamin D deficiencies can cause unexplained fractures in children through the Fractured Families non-profit organization. Oh, and in case you were wondering, she adds that her entire family takes vitamin D supplements to make sure that they are maintaining satisfactory levels.
The treatment for these infants is an infant dosages of a vitamin D3 supplement.
Being a pregnant or breastfeeding mother can deplete a lot of your own vitamin stores, and if you’re depleted, your baby will not get enough of the vitamins that he or she needs either.
“Breastfed infants with limited sun exposure are also at risk—so those breastfed infants who may be hospitalized long term or born during winter months can be at a higher risk for a deficiency,” adds Carr.
She goes on to say, “Usually the treatment for these infants is an infant dosages of a vitamin D3 supplement to avoid a deficiency; the mother can also take a standard vitamin D supplement in addition to supplementing the infant.”
Most pediatricians now recommend that all nursing infants be given a vitamin D supplement to ensure they have the correct levels. Generally, your baby’s doctor will give this to you at a checkup. It’s a liquid drop that you can administer to your baby daily.
Long story short: If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, be sure to take your vitamins and continue your prenatal supplements while breastfeeding—and give your breastfed baby a vitamin D supplement as well.
People Who Work Inside
Vitamin D deficiencies related to lack of sun exposure have never been as common as they are now. People used to essentially live and work outside, spending long hours in the sun and, in many parts of the world, getting plenty of vitamin D from the sun alone.
Our modern lifestyles, however, result in many of us simply not spending a lot of time outdoors. We live inside, work inside chained to desks and screens, leave our houses in the dark, and sometimes return home long after the sun has set.
We drive to school and work in cars, protected from the sun, or on subways, hidden safely underground. Sometimes it feels like we go the whole workweek without ever seeing the sun.
Ironically, some of the people who work in healthcare—an industry notorious for long shifts spent inside—may be at high risk for the same vitamin D deficiency they help treat in others. Doctors, nurses, and other caregivers may not have time to eat properly balanced diets, either, contributing to their increased risk.
People With Dark Skin
Individuals who have more melanin in their skin typically have lower levels of vitamin D in their blood since melanin interferes with vitamin D absorption.
People with darker skin need 3 to 5 times the amount of sun exposure to produce the same amount of vitamin D as those with lighter skin tones.
Anyone in Northern Climates
Northern climates have less daylight in the winter, putting their residents at higher risk for low vitamin D.
Certain Medical Conditions
Not only are individuals with chronic health conditions, who may spend the majority of their time indoors, at risk for vitamin D deficiencies, but so are individuals with certain medical conditions, such as asthma, depression, and intestinal disorders.
The following medical conditions are commonly linked to vitamin D deficiencies, so if you or a loved one has one of these, make sure your D levels are being managed:
–Fat malabsorption syndromes
–Individuals on anticonvulsant medications
Feeling tired? Low levels of vitamin D might be to blame.
If you’ve ever wondered if you’re feeling tired and irritable for a reason, a vitamin deficiency might be to blame. At the age of 34, Nicole D. Riddle, MD, FCAP, board-certified pathologist with Ruffolo, Hooper, and Associates and assistant professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, found out rather unexpectedly that she was vitamin D deficient.
I was looking at things through a fog, and couldn't concentrate.
“It makes me tired and irritable... I was having 'dizzy' spells, felt like I was looking at things through a fog, and couldn't concentrate,” she explains.
“I had a low vitamin D for at least 2 years (that we know of) before I found out...no one told me and I finally asked to see my own lab results and saw it!"
Without a doctor’s guidance, Riddle also took longer than necessary to replenish her stores. She notes that overcoming vitamin D deficiency requires taking at least 5,000 IUs daily. If you are just low, she recommends taking between 1,000 to 2,000 IU to supplement, but as always, speak to a doctor before beginning any supplement regimen.
What You Can Do to Get More Vitamin D
It may sound simplistic, but the single most effective way to replenish vitamin D stores in the body is to get out in the sun. It’s hard, because yes, you should wear sunscreen, but wearing sunscreen also decreases the amount of vitamin D you absorb. The balancing act means longer exposure time with more sunscreen, and of course where you live will also affect how much sun exposure you need.
“The sun is the best natural source as we synthesize it via our skin,” explains Carr. “The UV index must be at three or higher though for your skin to make vitamin D—this happens in climates closer to the equator, hence why [people in] northern climates are at risk for seasonal affective disorder ... they can end up with a low level of vitamin D from not getting enough from the sun during the winter months.”
Next to the sun, you can also get more vitamin D from food groups that include fish (mackerel, cod, or salmon), fortified cow’s milk, fortified breakfast cereals, eggs (they're full of plenty of natural vitamin D), and fortified orange juice.
As a last resort, you can take a vitamin D supplement, but keep in mind that the best sources of vitamin D will always be the sun and food.
Being aware of the importance of vitamin D to your health and getting tested so you know your own vitamin D levels is a crucial step in self-care.
“It really is important for many reasons,” Riddle concludes. “And it is really quite easy to get enough.”