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Vitamin D deficiency: Cause, Symptoms, and prevention

Vitamin, Disease

 Let’s enter the illuminating journey into the world of a truly remarkable vitamin – vitamin D, often called the “sunshine vitamin.” Yes, you guessed it right! It’s the vitamin that’s gifted to us by the glorious sun, free of charge, waiting for us to reach out and embrace its benefits simply. But here’s the twist – despite this readily available source of nourishment, the enigma of vitamin D deficiency persists, casting a shadow over a significant portion of the population.

Isn’t it curious that vitamin D deficiency is still rising in a world abundant with sunlight? In this exploration, we will delve into the heart of the matter – what exactly triggers this deficiency, how it manifests itself through a range of symptoms, and, most importantly, how you can proactively shield yourself from its grasp.

Vitamin D deficiency

So, gather ’round as we unravel the mysteries surrounding vitamin D deficiency.

What is vitamin D deficiency means? 

Vitamin D deficiency is when our body doesn’t have enough of this essential vitamin to keep things running smoothly. Experts from groups like the National and International Osteoporosis Foundation and the American Geriatric Society say that having a level of 25-hydroxyvitamin (25 OH D) below 30 ng/mL indicates this deficiency. Another group, the Endocrine Society, suggests that a healthier range falls between 40 and 60 ng/mL. It’s like not having enough of a key ingredient to keep our body in its best shape.

Cause of vitamin D deficiency

The cause of vitamin D deficiency can often be linked to a variety of factors that impact our access to this vital nutrient. Here are some common reasons behind vitamin D deficiency:

Limited Sun Exposure: 

50% to 90% of vitamin D is absorbed through the skin subcutaneously, therefore limited exposure to the sun by staying indoors, covering yourself while in the sun, and using sunscreen can be problematic and can decrease the reserve of vitamin D. Another reason for less sun exposure could be another way round where skin does not absorb enough vitamin in a given time. This is prevalent in the dark skin people, 

Skin pigmentation (Dark skin tone)

Dark-skinned people absorb less vitamin D due to melanin, the skin’s pigment, acting like a natural sunscreen against the sun’s essential vitamin-producing UVB rays. Melanin shields, absorbing and scattering UVB rays, which trigger vitamin D production. While guarding against sunburn, it limits UVB penetration and vitamin D synthesis. In darker skin, higher melanin levels slow the conversion of 7-dehydrocholesterol to pre-vitamin D3, reducing vitamin D creation. This effect intensifies in low sunlight regions, affecting even lighter skin.

Age factor for vitamin D deficiency

Multiple factors contribute to vitamin D deficiency and calcium metabolism disruption with aging. Reduced calcium absorption from the digestive tract, decreased responsiveness of the intestine to active vitamin D, declining vitamin D receptors, diminished kidney production of active vitamin D and lowered skin vitamin D synthesis upon sun exposure all converge. A shortage of precursor compounds for vitamin D synthesis also compounds these challenges. These combined age-related shifts emphasize the need for focused interventions and proper intake to uphold bone health and overall well-being during aging.

Obesity cause vitamin D deficiency

Obesity contributes to vitamin D deficiency through a combination of factors:

  1. Lower vitamin D and reduced calcium intake in obese individuals may hinder proper vitamin D metabolism.
  2. Altered sun exposure behavior and reduced skin synthesis due to obesity may lower vitamin D production.
  3. There’s a potential for impaired vitamin D activation and catabolism within adipose tissue.
  4. A dilutional effect may partly explain the complex interplay of obesity’s effects on vitamin D.

Despite these mechanisms, studies suggest that obesity-related vitamin D deficiency can be addressed through weight-based dosing, indicating the need for tailored interventions to maintain optimal vitamin D levels.

Medical conditions

Vitamin D plays a crucial role in maintaining our health. It’s not just about calcium metabolism; it also influences cell functions and growth. Various chronic conditions like bone disorders, cancer, heart problems, and diabetes have strong links to low levels of a specific vitamin D marker called 25OHD. Moreover, deficiencies in 25OHD are also tied to neuropsychiatric issues and autoimmune disorders risks. Unfortunately, this deficiency is quite common worldwide. To safeguard our well-being, it’s vital to understand how low 25OHD can harm us and develop strategies to identify and help those with inadequate levels. Early interventions and treatments become essential in this context.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Vitamin D deficiency can emerge during pregnancy and breastfeeding for various reasons. Maternal vitamin D levels hold immense sway over the health of both the developing fetus and newborn. Factors like limited sun exposure and insufficient dietary intake can lead to maternal deficiency. Women with darker skin or reduced sun exposure are at a higher risk.

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Adequate vitamin D during pregnancy is vital for proper fetal growth, bone development, and potential long-term effects on the child’s well-being. Research suggests that doses beyond 1000 IU daily are necessary to maintain sufficient vitamin D levels in pregnant women. Similarly, breastfeeding infants are at risk if not supplemented with vitamin D due to the deficiency risk in mothers. Strategies involving maternal supplementation or infant vitamin D are crucial to combat this issue.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency

Bone health issues

Bone issues arise from vitamin D deficiency, impacting calcium absorption and bone strength. Prolonged deficiency may lead to conditions like rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Inadequate vitamin D affects bone mineralization, heightening fracture risk. Recent research shows vitamin D’s role extends to muscle function and inflammation, where supplementation can enhance muscle strength, reducing falls and fracture incidence. Optimal vitamin D levels are crucial for robust bone health and fracture prevention. Since deficiency leads to the weakening of the bone, symptoms like back pain, knee pain, and reduced energy are common. 

Muscle weakness

Muscle weakness is linked to vitamin D deficiency, impacting muscle function and balance. Inadequate vitamin D heightens fall and proximal weakness risks. Given the widespread prevalence of deficiency and vague symptoms, suspecting vitamin D shortage in muscle pain and weakness cases is crucial. A simple serum 25(OH) vitamin D test can help diagnose and address the issue effectively.

Fatigue and weakness

The link between vitamin D deficiency and fatigue emerges from various factors. Studies show that low vitamin D levels are connected to fatigue in cancer patients and those with conditions like myasthenia gravis, with fatigue improving after vitamin D normalization. Widespread reports also reveal a high prevalence of low vitamin D in the general population. Inadequate vitamin D contributes to bone issues and weakened muscles, impacting overall energy levels. Low vitamin D can affect skeletal muscle functioning via vitamin D receptors in otherwise healthy individuals, potentially leading to fatigue

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Mood change and Cognitive issues

Vitamin D deficiency’s impact on mood, depression, and cognitive function involves intricate biological pathways. Calcium balance disruption, neurotransmitter imbalances, and inflammatory processes might contribute. Vitamin D’s role in modulating cytokines and neurotransmitters, its effects on key brain areas implicated in depression, and regulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis highlight its potential neurotrophic and immunomodulatory role.

Depressed individuals may experience reduced sunlight exposure and nutritional deficiencies, worsening vitamin D levels. Studies consistently show depressed subjects having lower vitamin D levels, with some studies linking the severity of depressive symptoms to vitamin D status. However, certain studies found no direct association after controlling for confounding factors.

Sleep disturbance

Recent studies have shown a strong connection between insufficient vitamin D and sleep problems in kids and teenagers, such as trouble sleeping, obstructive sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome. Researchers looked at several studies that met certain standards and found a clear link between vitamin D and sleep. Vitamin D seems to affect how the brain regulates sleep, especially through the serotonergic and dopaminergic pathways. This might be why there are sleep issues like restless sleep, sweating during sleep, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome when vitamin D levels are low. This connection highlights how vitamin D could help young people have better sleep.

Impaired immune function and frequent illness

The connection between vitamin D deficiency and weakened immune function leading to frequent illnesses is becoming clearer. Research suggests that low levels of vitamin D are linked to autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and diabetes, among others. Studies indicate that vitamin D influences the immune system by affecting various immune cells like B cells, T cells, monocytes, and dendritic cells.

This deficiency may disrupt the balance of cytokines and immune responses, contributing to the development and progression of autoimmune disorders. Ensuring adequate vitamin D levels could play a significant role in maintaining a robust immune system and preventing immune-related health issues.

Prevention of vitamin D deficiency

A lack of vitamin D can lead to a range of health issues, including chronic and autoimmune diseases, as well as sleep problems. These concerns can disrupt our well-being and cause stress. To avoid such situations, it’s wise to take the following proactive steps to ensure we have enough vitamin D in our bodies. 

Exposing ourselves to the sun

It’s quite amusing that we’re aware the sun can provide us with vitamin D through its rays, yet we often take measures to shield ourselves from it. We use sunscreen, cover-up, or simply stay indoors to avoid sun exposure. To address this, it’s essential to make a change in your daily routine to prevent vitamin D deficiency. Even if not all day long, consider taking a walk in the sun before 9 am with minimal covering, allowing your skin to absorb sunlight.

People with darker skin tones should be aware that they may need extra sun exposure due to slower absorption. These small adjustments can significantly reduce the risk of vitamin D deficiency by up to 90%.

Dietary changes for vitamin D deficiency prevention

Dietary adjustments can help prevent vitamin D deficiency. Dairy products like whole milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese provide varying levels of vitamin D, with fortified options offering higher content. Eggs, especially the yolk, are rich sources, and consuming at least 0.5 eggs/day can benefit children.

Fish, such as wild-caught salmon, provide substantial vitamin D3, while sun-exposed mushrooms, including shiitake, offer vitamin D2 and D3, even D4. Sun-exposed yeast serves as an alternative source for vegans and vegetarians. Incorporating these foods into your diet can contribute to maintaining adequate vitamin D levels and supporting overall health.

Consult to dietician

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Consulting a dietician is crucial to prevent vitamin D deficiency. They can create a personalized dietary plan that includes vitamin D-rich foods, like dairy products, eggs, fish, and fortified options. A dietician considers individual needs, lifestyle, and potential risks, ensuring a balanced intake. With their expertise, you’ll have a tailored strategy to maintain optimal vitamin D levels and overall health.

Treatment of vitamin D deficiency

There are two common treatment protocols for addressing vitamin D deficiency:

Holick Protocol:

 Initially, patients receive a weekly dose of 50,000 IU of vitamin D3 for 8 weeks to replenish deficient levels. During the maintenance phase, a 50,000 IU dose of vitamin D3 is administered every 2 weeks. Serum 25 (OH D) levels are checked after 2-3 months; maintenance therapy continues if they exceed 30 ng/ml.

Divided Dose Protocol:

Patients are given 500,000-1,000,000 IU of vitamin D3 in divided doses over 4-5 weeks (e.g., 1 pearl every 2-3 days). No treatment is given in the subsequent 4-5 weeks. Serum 25 (OH) D levels are assessed after the second 4-5 week period; if above 30 ng/ml, maintenance therapy is initiated with 50,000 IU oral vitamin D3 monthly.

Written by

Sobin S. Gupta (MSc)

Sobin S. Gupta is a multifaceted professional—nutritionist, researcher, writer, and diabetes educator. She founded "Nutrition Meet," dedicated to educating the community on preventing and curing chronic diseases. With a passion for health and wellness, Sobin empowers individuals to take control of their well-being through informed dietary choices.

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