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Vitamin D: Don’t let the D stand for deficiency

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Vitamin D deficiency is an under-diagnosed condition estimated to affect 50 percent of the world, and 56 percent of New Zealanders. For this Living Well magazine piece, Dr Frances Pitsilis looked into the research to explain the effects of vitamin D deficiency and what you can do to boost your levels. Pick up the latest Living Well at your local Unichem.

Vitamin D was named as a vitamin by mistake. It actually has a structural make-up similar to cholesterol. The bulk of vitamin D is produced by the skin, liver, kidneys and the body in response to sun exposure. Smaller sources can be found in oily fish such as salmon, and cod liver oil. The only other way to get vitamin D is to take it as a supplement.

People who are at higher risk of deficiency are typically female, darker skinned, elderly, diabetic or smokers who are overweight. It’s all related to whether you can get enough sun to start with, but then do you make vitamin D well enough?

Getting your vitamin D naturally

The best time to get the right sun for your body to make vitamin D is between the hours of 10am and 3pm during the summer months. You need to expose large areas for a few minutes and protect your face. Don’t allow yourself to burn. In the winter months, it’s very difficult to get enough vitamin D and we know that people in the South Island will never get enough.

Most people become deficient in vitamin D because they don’t get enough sun. However, elderly people cannot make enough vitamin D and on average have half the ability to make it compared with young people. Overweight people tend to trap their vitamin D in their fat and cannot get access to it. Nicotine also interferes with vitamin D production, as do many drugs, including statin drugs. 

Vitamin D and your health

Vitamin D has been found to influence heart disease, diabetes type 2 and diabetes type 1, as well as coeliac disease. It has a role in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. It has even been found to reduce overall mortality.

Rickets, a bone disease in children that results from insufficient vitamin D, has been diagnosed in New Zealand. 

As well as bone strength there are also important effects in relation to muscles and balance. Correcting a vitamin D deficiency in an older person, for example, would prevent them falling over as easily because it reduces sway. It would also improve their muscles and bone health.

There is more autoimmune disease in our community, such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers have suggested an important association between these conditions and vitamin D. There is also an important connection with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

When it comes to allergies, eczema and asthma, vitamin D has been found to balance out the immune system.

With respiratory infections, there has been much research on vitamin D showing that it reduces viral infections and influenza.

There is a specific condition in women from vitamin D deficiency which is symmetrical lower back pain associated with weakness of the upper arms or thighs, muscle pains and even throbbing bone pain in the pelvis and legs. In addition, migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic pain and persistent non-specific muscular pain can be related to vitamin D deficiency.

The effect of vitamin D in the womb

It’s essential to get enough vitamin D during pregnancy for foetal development. 

Appropriate levels of vitamin D in pregnant women can help brain development in the womb and reduce the incidence of low birth weight babies, pre-eclampsia and Caesarean birth.

If you’re pregnant, a blood test will determine if you require a vitamin D supplement.

Taking vitamin D supplements

Dr Pitsilis says that she often finds that correcting vitamin D deficiency gives improvements such as sleeping better, having less pain and depression, having more energy and even thinking better.

The best way to know whether you need vitamin D is to have a blood test. There may be a cost involved, but it is certainly worth it.

From your results your doctor will decide what dose to give you, and then do another blood test a few months later to check on how things are going.

The dose of vitamin D needed will vary from person to person according to their unique situation. The legal dose that you can purchase is 1000 iu/day and it is known to be safe in pregnancy.

Vitamin D is available at your local Unichem – talk to the Pharmacist for more information and for the brand that’s right for you. 

Dr Frances Pitsilis, MB BS (Mon) Dip Obst, Dip Occup Med, ABAARM, AFAARM, FRNZCGP, works in chronic illness and appearance medicine and is an international conference speaker.