Vitamin D deficiency is a growing health issue. Many people — particularly those living in northern climes — are simply not getting enough of this essential nutrient, especially during darker winter months. 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 Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly known as “winter blues.”
Signs of vitamin D deficiency can manifest in a number of different areas, including immune health, cardiovascular health, bone health and much more.
But what’s causing the problem? Why is vitamin D different from other vitamins? Part of the issue is that vitamin D plays a number of diverse and critically important roles in maintaining health: influencing hormones and brain chemistry, and interacting with our genes to influence cellular signaling, growth and repair processes, immunity, along with numerous other functions.
Furthermore, vitamin D is difficult to obtain from natural sources. Most people get this nutrient from dairy, which could be a real problem for those who are vegan or lactose intolerant.
The main source of vitamin D is the body’s own production. This occurs when our skin is exposed to UV (ultraviolet) sunlight, but our modern lifestyles seem to have become a barrier. Even when the sun is shining and we get the chance to go outside and spend some time in it, many of us wear sunscreen which prevents us from producing this critical nutrient. It’s also important to note that not all sunlight is created equal in terms of vitamin D: the intense sunshine near the equator is stronger and better able to stimulate vitamin D production in the skin.
Why We Need Vitamin D
Vitamin D is involved with the regulation of calcium in the body and helps with bone calcification, which is why reduced levels can lead to issues with bone health.
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.
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 fortified with the nutrient.
One of the best sources is wild, cold water fish like salmon and sardines. Cod liver oil is also an exceptionally good source. Egg yolks are also a good source, as is beef liver.
Culinary mushrooms can provide vitamin D, particularly shiitake. One study found that medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi and ganoderma are also good sources, particularly when they’ve been exposed to sunlight. At the same time, many mushrooms are also quite good at balancing and modulating immunity.
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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 damage, it only takes a small amount of daily sun to allow the skin to make enough vitamin D. Those with darker complexion may stay in the sun longer. After we get our dose, natural sunscreens may help protect against skin damage and photo-aging.
Lastly, there are many vitamin D supplements available. These can help significantly and are often how clinicians address people with serious deficiencies. Again, caution is in order; you need balanced amounts. If you’re considering supplementation, check your blood levels of vitamin D first and consult your doctor. Vitamin D3 is the recommended type of vitamin D for supplementation.
A combination of strategies to increase levels of this critical nutrient is the best approach. More vitamin D-rich foods, more sunlight and careful supplementation if needed can go a long way toward building better health this winter, and throughout the year.