Health Column: Vitamin D Deficiency getting you down?

By Stephanie Vilendrer

It’s getting to be that time of year when the skies cloud over and the ground freezes solid. You might be actively planning for cold days ahead by pulling out your warmest hats and fuzzy scarves, but are you thinking about the changing season’s effects on your health? Along with the disappearance of the sun goes the major source of a nutrient that is critical to great health: vitamin D. Deficiency can contribute to a whole host of issues, such as depression (winter blues, anyone?), brittle bones, PMS and unbalanced hormone levels, and even diabetes and some types of cancers. Sufficient levels of vitamin D boost immunity and may help you ward off seasonal colds, too. Unfortunately, most people are deficient in vitamin D. Symptoms of deficiency include chronic back pain, musculoskeletal pain, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammation, and nerve or bone pain. Most people are deficient year-round but especially so during the winter months when the main way that our bodies synthesize D – from exposure to sunlight – rarely occurs. Our bodies can manufacture this important precursor hormone (it is converted into its active hormone form by the liver and kidneys) upon direct exposure to UV rays from the sun. Vitamin D is also found in some food sources, but usually dietary intake is not sufficient. These food sources include egg yolks, fish and fish oil, cheese, and some fortified dairy and grain products. Many doctors believe that to get enough vitamin D, people with light skin need to have direct, nearly full-body exposure to the sun for at least twenty minutes a day within the midday hours. For people with dark skin, exposure needs to be closer to 30 to 40 minutes per day. Unfortunately, Minnesotans would become icicles if we attempted to fulfill our daily vitamin D quotas by sunbathing in November. Often the sun disappears for days at a time, and we are left feeling chilly and D-deficient. Fortunately, however, there are ways to maintain adequate levels of vitamin D all year-round. As I mentioned before, eating foods rich in vitamin D can be helpful but is probably not sufficient. Supplementation is one method that is very effective. If you do decide to purchase a supplement, most doctors recommend buying the D3 rather than D2 form, since the latter is the synthetic version and possibly less effective. The recommendation for intake tends to vary between 600 IU to 5000 IU per day. I personally take 5000 IU every day with great results, but exercise caution because taking too much can be toxic. You should also check with a health practitioner (there are great people at the Health and Wellness Center) before deciding to supplement. It’s probably worth it to pay a few bucks to feel better all winter and maybe even fend off a cold or two!