Soak Up the Sun: Addressing Vitamin D Deficiency

The Health series is presented by AdventHealth

Over the last few months, Cody Guggenmos, a family medicine physician with AdventHealth Medical Group Primary Care at Lenexa, has diagnosed more cases of vitamin D deficiency than he usually does.

“I doubt there are specifically ‘more’ cases of vitamin D deficiency than there previously were; I think doctors are just looking for it more often,” says Guggenmos. “I recently read a great article about how patients with low vitamin D were more likely to have severe illness related to Covid infections, so I became suspicious and started checking vitamin D levels on my patients more often. That’s when I personally started to notice how common low vitamin D levels are in the community.”

Why is vitamin D so important? Guggenmos says it helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which is how bones are built and strengthened. There’s also quite a bit of evidence that vitamin D reduces inflammation, helps resist infections, and even slows the growth of cancerous cells in the body.

While vitamin D is beneficial for everyone, it’s particularly important for women’s health, as women’s bodies have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis and fractures later in life.

Causes and Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency comes from both inadequate exposure to sunlight and dietary deficiencies, but there are some people who have naturally lower levels of vitamin D due to challenges absorbing the vitamin.

“People with darker skin color almost always have lower blood levels of vitamin D,” says Guggenmos. “The melanin (pigment) in dark skin really helps reduce the damaging effects of the sun and prevent skin cancer, but it also reduces the ability to synthesize vitamin D from direct sunlight.”

Guggenmos notes that infants who are exclusively breast-fed are also more likely to be deficient in vitamin D because breast milk contains almost no vitamin D, while formula does—that’s why he recommends supplementing breast-fed babies with vitamin D.

Wondering if you could have a vitamin D deficiency? The most common symptom is fatigue.

“The most common reason I look for vitamin D deficiency in patients is unexplained fatigue,” says Guggenmos. “When you can’t find anything else wrong, but you’re still tired all the time, maybe low vitamin D is the answer. Some other slightly less common manifestations include frequent illness, muscle or bone pain, or even mood issues like depression.”

If you have questions about your vitamin D levels, you should talk to your doctor. Prolonged vitamin D deficiency can cause long-term problems, such as osteomalacia, or soft bones, which results in a higher likelihood of injury and bone pain.

Increasing Your Vitamin D Levels
Thankfully, symptoms of vitamin D deficiency—including osteomalacia—can be reversed by restoring vitamin D to the levels your body needs. This can be done naturally and with the help of supplements.

“In the United States, almost all milk is fortified with vitamin D,” says Guggenmos. “You can also drink orange juice or eat ocean fish rich in fat, such as salmon or tuna. And above all else, go get some sunlight! The amount of exposure recommended is of course dependent on how sensitive your skin is to the sun, but it is generally recommended to get at least 20-30 minutes of sunlight every day—which could get you anywhere from 10,000-25,000 IU (international units) of vitamin D per day.”

If you think you’re having trouble sustaining healthy vitamin D levels naturally, ask your doctor to run a blood test to check for a deficiency and guide you through dietary supplements that might help.

“Supplementation with anywhere from 1,000-4,000 IU of vitamin D per day is generally considered safe even without seeing a doctor first, but I would ask your doctor before taking any doses larger than that,” Guggenmos recommends. He cautions that too much vitamin D can lead to vitamin D toxicity, which can cause nausea and vomiting, weakness, bone pain, and kidney problems.

Family medicine physician Cody Guggenmos

“The best way to get vitamin D will always be direct sunlight,” says Guggenmos. “Vitamin D produced in the skin may last twice as long compared to vitamin D supplements we take in pill form. Having said that, there are a lot of great options for vitamin D supplements in pill, capsule, or gummy form. Once you and your doctor decide on the correct amount/dose of supplementation, you’ll have plenty of good options and brands to choose from.”

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