What is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is also referred to as the "Sunshine Vitamin," as this vitamin is produced in the body after the skin has been exposed to the sun. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and is found in some foods, such as fish, egg yolks and fish liver oil, fortified grain and dairy products. Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, in absorption of phosphorus and calcium and to maintain a healthy immune system. Insufficient vitamin D commonly results in osteomalacia in adults and rickets in children. Other than this, if a person does not get enough vitamin D, there are a gamut of health problems to be faced which include metabolic disorders, skeletal diseases, cancer, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, infections, cognitive disorders and even potentially death.
There are two forms of vitamin D: Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3. Ergocalciferol, also known as Vitamin D2, is present in fortified foods, plant foods and supplements. Cholecalciferol is vitamin D3 and is present in animal foods (fatty fish, eggs, cod liver oil, liver), fortified foods, supplements and is produced in the body when the skin is exposed to UV rays from the sun.
What Happens if You Don't Get Enough Vitamin D?
Not getting sufficient Vitamin D increases the risk for the following conditions:
Increased risk for Depression: Not getting enough vitamin D increases the risk for having depression by two-fold. The hippocampus along with other parts of the brain which is responsible for regulating a person's mood contains receptors of vitamin D. Therefore a decreased level of vitamin D in the body affects the ability of these areas to function normally which can result in depression.
Increased risk of Alzheimer's Disease & Dementia: Individuals with even moderate deficiency of vitamin D will have about 50% increased risk for developing dementia. People with severe deficiency of vitamin D will have more than 100% increased risk of having dementia when compared to people with normal levels of vitamin D. There is also an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease in individuals with insufficient levels of vitamin D.
Increased Likelihood of developing Aggressive Prostate Cancer: Men with low vitamin D levels have increased risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer by 5 times. The exact link between insufficient vitamin D and prostate cancer is not clear yet.
Decreased Likelihood of Surviving Cancer: Patients suffering from cancer and who have increased or sufficient level of vitamin D have increased chances to survive cancer and remain longer in remission when compared to those patients who have low levels Vitamin D.
Increased Likelihood for having Psoriatic Arthritis: Insufficient level of vitamin D also increases the likelihood for having psoriatic arthritis in patients with psoriasis. Psoriatic arthritis is a condition where the immune system attacks the joints causing inflammation and pain. Low level of vitamin D worsens inflammatory conditions including psoriatic arthritis.
Increased Risk for developing Cardiovascular Disease: Individuals with insufficient vitamin D have an increased risk for having coronary artery disease and also for severe form of this disease which involves multiple vessels. Vitamin D helps in controlling inflammation and improving the immune function, which in turn helps in reducing the risk of developing heart disease.
Increased Chances of developing Pneumonia: If a person doesn't get enough vitamin D, then his/her risk of developing pneumonia also increases. Vitamin D deficiency weakens the immune system and this in turn increases the risk of contracting various illnesses including respiratory infections.
Increased Risk of Neuromuscular Disorders: People with insufficient vitamin D are at an increased risk for developing neuromuscular disorders, such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis etc. Low levels of vitamin D can also worsen an existing case of multiple sclerosis.
Increased Risk for developing Schizophrenia: There is double the likelihood for being diagnosed with Schizophrenia in individuals with vitamin D deficiency. Research is going on to understand the role of vitamin D in psychiatric conditions.
Premature or Early Death: People who do not get enough vitamin D or those who have vitamin D deficiency are more likely to die prematurely when compared to those people who have normal levels of vitamin D.
What Causes Deficiency of Vitamin D?
There are different causes for Vitamin D deficiency and they include:
- Not consuming diet which has vitamin D or not consuming the recommended levels of vitamin D. This is seen in individuals who strictly follow a vegetarian or a vegan diet, as the natural sources of Vitamin D are mostly animal-based, such as egg yolks, fish, fish oils, fortified milk, liver and beef.
- Limited exposure to sunlight increases the risk of vitamin D deficiency as our body makes vitamin D upon exposure to sunlight.
- Having a dark skin increases the risk of vitamin D deficiency as the pigment melanin decreases the ability of the skin to make vitamin D in response to exposure to the sun.
- Inability to absorb vitamin D by the digestive tract, which can occur in medical conditions such as cystic fibrosis, Crohn's disease, celiac disease etc.
- Inability of the kidneys to convert the vitamin D to its active form; this can be seen in ageing individuals.
- Obesity also leads to low levels of vitamin D.
What Can Be Done to Get Enough Vitamin D?
In order to combat vitamin D deficiency, it is important to make dietary changes and lifestyle modifications. Patient should follow a diet which naturally contains vitamin D, such as fish, eggs, shitake mushrooms, cheese, milk etc. Vegetarians can consume vitamin D fortified grains and orange juice. Other than this, Vitamin D3 supplements can also be prescribed by doctor to correct the deficiency. The supplements can be taken daily or weekly or on a monthly basis. The amount of vitamin D which is required to correct the deficiency depends on the severity of the Vitamin D deficiency and also the patient's health risks. It is also important to take vitamin D supplements with a meal that contains fat as this will help in better absorption of the vitamin D.