Vitamin D Deficiency: Causes, Signs, and How to Address It
We all know the importance of protecting our skin from the sun’s harmful rays—but did you know that insufficient sunlight can actually be detrimental to your health?
Similarly, while plant-based diets may offer their own health benefits for some individuals, the lack of certain nutrients can pose significant health problems.
If you’re not a fan of soaking up the sun, or if you eat a vegan or dairy-free diet, you may be at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Keep reading to learn more about the importance of vitamin D, along with some tips for getting enough of this essential nutrient to stay healthy.
What is Vitamin D?
Known as “the sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D actually isn’t a vitamin at all. Technically, it’s a hormone that the body makes itself when exposed to sunlight.
Also found in some foods, vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, keeping muscles and bones strong and healthy. Traditionally, a lack of sufficient vitamin D has been associated with rickets, a disease in children which causes skeletal deformities due to softening and distorting of the bones.
That said, research is continuously revealing the importance of vitamin D and its effects on various aspects of our overall health, mental health included.
Causes of Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency is incredibly common, with an estimated 50% of the global population lacking sufficient vitamin D levels. “Common” is not the same as “normal,” though, and vitamin D deficiency should certainly not be taken lightly.
The primary causes of vitamin D deficiency are a poor diet, lack of sunlight exposure, and/or having a body that is unable to sufficiently convert vitamin D due to various health issues.
Common risk factors of vitamin D deficiency include:
Dark skin, which makes it more difficult to absorb sunlight
Old age, as the skin and kidneys don’t convert vitamin D as efficiently as they used to
Obesity, as excess body fat can prevent the blood from absorbing vitamin D
Taking medications that affect vitamin D metabolism, such as laxatives or steroids
Minimal sunlight exposure, such as working overnight shifts or living in an area with little year-round sunlight
Certain health conditions such as Crohn’s or celiac disease, osteoporosis, kidney or liver issues, and some forms of cancer
Being lactose intolerant or eating a vegan diet
- For infants: breastfeeding, because human milk is not an adequate source of vitamin D
With so many risk factors, it makes sense that approximately 1 billion people worldwide are deficient in vitamin D… and you might be one of them!
Signs of Vitamin D Deficiency
The amount of vitamin D an individual needs each day varies depending on a few factors: age, health conditions, and risk factors, for example. That said, adults should typically be getting 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D per day.
Simply put, if you’re not getting enough vitamin D, you have a vitamin D deficiency. Also called “hypovitaminosis D,” this can lead to loss of bone density and muscle weakness; it may be also connected to medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, some autoimmune diseases, cognitive impairment in adults, and asthma in children.
Common signs of vitamin D deficiency include:
- Muscle cramps or weakness
- Bone/joint pain, especially in the back
- Loss of bone density and easily broken bones
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Mood changes such as depression or anxiety
- Susceptibility to sicknesses, such as cold or flu
- Hair loss
- Weakened nails
- Slow wound healing
If you’re concerned about your health, it’s always a good idea to schedule an appointment with your doctor to rule out anything serious. To determine your exact vitamin D levels, visit a doctor’s office or clinic for blood work testing, or purchase an at-home test.
How to Boost Your Vitamin D Levels
The simplest treatment for low vitamin D levels? Get more vitamin D! Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to naturally boost your vitamin D levels. All you need is some sunlight, dietary changes, and supplements.
Because the body naturally forms vitamin D after being exposed to sunlight, it’s important to make sure you’re getting your fix of sunshine. Plus, there’s no mood booster like a quick soak in the sun!
For those with fair skin, 15-20 minutes of direct sunlight (not through a window) for 3 days per week is typically sufficient. Note that the darker your skin, the more sun exposure you need.
Remember that sunscreen, while important for your skin health, also inhibits vitamin D production. We’re definitely not telling you to skip the sunscreen, though!
If you’re an avid sunscreen-wearer, live in an area with minimal sunlight, are an older adult, or have dark skin, you’ll likely want to invest in a vitamin D-rich diet and supplements to make up for that lack of sun absorption.
By eating foods that naturally contain vitamin D, you’ll reduce your risk of deficiency.
- Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna
- Beef liver
- Egg yolks
You can also find vitamin D in fortified foods such as milk, some cereals, orange juice, and yogurt. Just check the label to find out whether vitamin D is an added ingredient.
If you’re vegan or lactose-intolerant, you’ll be able to get vitamin D from a few foods—but your best bet is to focus on sunlight and dietary supplements.
Vitamin D can be found in a variety of multivitamins, not to mention pills or liquids used with droppers. You can even find baby-friendly vitamin D supplements for those breastfeeding infants who need an extra boost.
You can also find vitamin D in Hilo Repair Gummies. Made of natural ingredients including turmeric and astaxanthin in addition to vitamin D, these tasty gummies boost bone health, fight inflammation, and accelerate recovery.
Vitamin D supplements are a good catch-all for anyone, regardless of diet or lifestyle.
Can You Get Too Much Vitamin D?
As with most things in life, vitamin D is good in moderation. While incredibly rare, vitamin D toxicity is a possibility. Fortunately, you can’t overdose on sunlight or foods with vitamin D—but it is possible to overdo it with the supplements.
Vitamin D toxicity is the result of too much calcium in the blood and can be evidenced by:
- Excessive thirst and urination
- Loss of appetite
- Bone pain
- Kidney stones
If you notice any concerning symptoms, it’s never a bad idea to contact your doctor. Depending on the severity of the issue, you may be advised to put a pause on your vitamin D supplements or even be prescribed IVs and medications.