I’ve become increasingly interested in vitamin D, because of the growing rates of deficiency often seen in people who cover up. But, I’ve been fascinated by this subject ever since I worked with a woman in her mid-30s, who had to have vitamin D injections because her jaw bone was crumbling away!
So what is Vitamin D and why is it so important for us?
All vitamins are essential for normal body function, but vitamin D is slightly different. Some even say superior. In his video advocate, Dr Tom O’Bryan suggests that every cell in our body utilises, or at least, has the capacity to utilise, vitamin D. Take a look.
Vitamin D is also a pro-hormone. This means that it can activate our tissues and organs to perform certain actions. Turning off some immune cell functions to prevent auto-immune disease from developing, is one such thing.
So where did it come from?
Vitamin D was discovered almost by accident because of investigations into rickets, a childhood condition, where bones are soft and pliable. This can present as bowed legs but also painful malformations such as curvatures in the spine and nodules on bones. But vitamin D deficiency is not only a childhood disease. It’s seen in adults as osteomalcia where similarly to rickets, the bone tissue is soft and weak and lacks calcium and phosphorous. In the elderly, it’s seen as osteoporosis where the bone tissue is easily susceptible to breakage. Sadly, the NHS estimate that over 30 million people in the UK suffer from osteoporosis and it increases radically for those over the age of 40!
Take away – Vitamin D is vital for bone health, particularly for the young and elderly.
What’s crucial for us to know about vitamin D?
In bone health vitamin D is crucial and you’ll often hear of it paired with the minerals calcium and phosphorus. Why? – Well because the parathyroid gland (which sits on either side of the thyroid, at the base of the head) regulates the level of calcium in the blood. If calcium levels become too low, the parathyroid hormones work to take calcium out of storage. And the storage vaults are in bone tissue. This can then cause poor bone health, as we talked about before. But vitamin D counteracts this because it is able to balance parathyroid hormone levels. Vitamin D also binds with calcium in the intestines before it transports it into the blood stream.
But vitamin D isn’t just important for bone health. It’s suggested that it’s also crucial for brain and nerve function. It aids insulin regulation, contributes to blood pressure control and also immune function. Whether it can benefit mood disorders or not is not conclusive, but we’ll be touching on that next.
Take away – Vitamin D may have far greater benefits than merely improving bone health such as aiding immune and insulin function and blood pressure.
Can vitamin D help with mood?
In regards to mood, particularly depression, the evidence for vitamin D is mixed. One of the reasons is because mood improvement is shown to be due, in part, to the lifestyle changes people make in the warmer weather. Getting outside in bright light, taking in fresh air, exercising more and even socialising can all benefit and enhance mood. There is more evidence of this than correlations to vitamin D’s direct relation to increasing serotonin and dopamine levels 1, 2.
Another tentative correlation between vitamin D and mood is due to the action that it has on activating insulin function. This is particularly applicable to those who have vitamin D deficiencies or when there’s a desperate need in the body for insulin. You’ll have heard me talk incessantly about insulin and the role it has on blood sugar balance. And it’s because of this that the evidence is not conclusive. It’s thought that although vitamin D may raise insulin levels, it’s actually the blood sugar balance mechanisms which help to regulate mood 3.
A third correlation is the role that excessively high calcium levels (hypercalcaemia) has on mood. People with hypercalcaemia may have hyperparathyroidism, a disease of the parathyroid gland. Their symptoms may include fatigue, insomnia and depression and they will most certainly have irregular vitamin D levels. Although it may translate that regulating calcium levels would improve mood, this isn’t necessarily the case. Hyperparathyroidism is a serious condition which requires thorough investigation and may require medical intervention.
Take away – vitamin D may contribute to lifestyle changes, regulation of blood sugar and calcium regulation. But increasing vitamin D levels may not necessarily have a direct impact on improving mood in all cases. Other interventions may also be needed.
So should we be getting vitamin D naturally or synthetically?
Whether you get vitamin D from food, the sun or supplements is very much dependent on your own personal needs. The recommended daily intake (and this is just to prevent deficiency) is 10 micrograms a day. In the summer months we can get this from our main source, the sun and to a lesser extent nutrition. But it’s important to note that some people may not get adequate levels from either and benefit from taking a supplement.
Food – The food sources are largely fatty foods, such as fish, salmon, sardines, herring and dairy, butter, cheese, milk and eggs, as well as sunflower seeds and liver. But because it’s such an important vitamin, it’s also supplemented in foods such as bread, cereals and milk.
Sun – Straight from the sun, the recommendation is for 30 minutes a day of direct sunlight, particularly on bare arms and legs.
Supplements – Some people may find, particularly in the darker months, that supplementation can help to boost and maintain levels. Vitamin D has two components, D2 (ergo-calciferol) derived from plants and D3 (chole-calciferol) from the sun. Supplements are usually in the form of D3 as this is the most useable form for the human body.
The sources of D3 are very varied. It’s found in sheep’s wool, but vegetarians and vegans can find sources from lichen (a fungus and a secondary living organism). As well as these, D3 can also be found in some multivitamins and cod liver oil. It’s important to note that as a fat soluble vitamin, it’s absorbed and broken down alongside the body’s fat molecules, so it’s best taken with a substantial meal.
Take away – It’s important to know your personal needs, in order to know which source of vitamin D is best for you.
Are you SAD in the winter?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition which impacts people in the darker winter months. It’s associated with low mood, extreme tiredness and even food cravings or conversely loss of appetite – these are all actually, features of depression.
One way that some people suffering from SAD have been helped during the winter months is by using light boxes. Ultra violet light is part of a large electromagnetic spectrum which includes the energy waves seen from the sun, but also microwaves, x-rays and radio waves.
Light boxes can simulate the sun’s ultra violet light to provide the recipient with low levels of vitamin D3.
Take away – Although it won’t necessarily work for everyone, some people find light boxes to be beneficial in lifting mood in darker months.
What to do if you’re concerned
The first thing to do is always to go to your GP. Your GP can do a blood test to check for deficiencies and also determine what your symptoms specifically relate to. It may take some time to investigate and to find out exactly why you’re deficient, but once you do, there are a lot of things that can be done to help you.
If you’d like to have a strategy put in place to help you increase your vitamin D levels or if you’d like to know how nutrition can help you, please contact me
- Biocare (n. d) The Science of Vitamin D
- Bertone-Johnson, E. R (2009) Vitamin D and the Occurrence of Depression: Causal Association or Circumstantial Evidence? [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih. gov/pubmed/19674344