By Irene Lane, DC Healthy Living Examiner March 4, 2010
Vitamin D deficiencies among young people are more prevalent than one would think. If you adhered to medical advice and shunned the sun for most of your adult life or maintained a strict vegetarian diet, you may be at risk for a vitamin D deficiency. Increasingly, research is revealing the importance of vitamin D as protection against a host of health problems including cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, asthma and cancer. Are you at risk?
Dr. Mary Wilkinson, an oncologist / hematologist who practices in Northern Virginia and who has been consistently listed in Washingtonian Magazine as a leading doctor in the Washington, D.C. area says, “The medical community is just realizing that there is a more complex interaction between vitamin D and cellular growth than what has been previously identified. Nonetheless, people who have used sunscreen liberally or have just stayed away from the sun entirely are more likely to have a vitamin D deficiency.”
What are the lifestyle and individual risks for a vitamin D deficiency? Known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D is produced by the body in response to sunlight and is essential for strong bones because it helps the body absorb calcium. It is also occurs naturally in a few foods — including fish, egg yolks and fish liver oils as well as in fortified dairy and grain products. But a deficiency can occur for a number of reasons including:
- Following a strict vegetarian diet since the natural sources are animal-based
- Limiting your exposure to the sun
- Having dark skin because the pigment melanin reduces ability to make vitamin D
- Inability for your kidneys to convert vitamin D into its active form
- Inability to absorb vitamin D due to Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis or celiac disease
- Having a body mass index of 30 or greater
What are its symptoms? Vitamin D deficiency may be characterized by muscle weakness or bone pain, increased rate of fractures, low energy and fatigue, lowered immunity, symptoms of depression and mood swings and sleep irregularities. Over time, if the deficiency is not detected, osteoporosis, depression, heart disease and stroke, colon or prostate cancer in men, breast cancer in women, diabetes, parathyroid problems, immune system malfunction and weight loss may develop. Dr. Wilkinson adds, “Since we’ve only been measuring vitamin D levels more readily in the last few years, we are unsure if the deficiency causes breast cancer, for example, or if a vitamin D deficiency is merely associated with breast cancer.”
What test confirms the deficiency? The most accurate way to measure how much vitamin D is in your body is the 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. In the kidneys, 25-hydroxy vitamin D changes into an active form of the vitamin that helps to control calcium and phosphate levels in the body. Those levels can be measured through the blood test. The normal range is 30.0 to 74.0 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL). A lower level indicates a vitamin D deficiency. Dr. Wilkinson emphasizes that “being in the middle of the range is very important since we do know that cancer recurrence is associated with both low and high levels of vitamin D. In this case, being in the middle of the range is best.”
How is one treated for the deficiency? Treatment involves getting more vitamin D — through diet, prescription supplements and spending more time in the sun.
How can one prevent the deficiency?
1. Allow yourself limited (no more than 15 minutes) unprotected sun exposure 2. Eat a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods such as fatty fish, egg yolks, fortified organic milk and other dairy products, and organic meats like liver 3. Take a multivitamin that includes fish oil every day 4. Take a vitamin D supplement