How to Spot a Vitamin D Deficiency

Man standing in the sunshine

Four out of 10 people living in the U.S. likely have a vitamin D deficiency. And, if you’re deficient in vitamin D, you probably don’t feel very well. The good news is it’s an easy fix. Molly Ropte, DO for UnityPoint Health, breaks down how to identify a deficiency and offers her expert medical advice, including good sources of vitamin D, to keep you feeling amazing year-round.

What Does Vitamin D Do?

Vitamin D has a lot of health benefits. 

  • It’s key in absorbing calcium to maintain bone health and strengthen your bones. 
  • It also helps support a healthy brain, heart, teeth and lungs.
  • Vitamin D keeps your immune system strong and can help regulate insulin levels.
  • It keeps your energy levels up and enhances your mood, too.
Newer studies suggest low levels of vitamin D can be linked to numerous health problems including diabetes, pain in your muscles and bones, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis and even some types of cancer. Studies of children receiving vitamin D supplements during the winter suggest a reduced risk of influenza A

Does Vitamin D Help with Depression?

Vitamin D is vital for physical and mental health. A vitamin D deficiency can impact your mood, meaning it may contribute to feeling down or depressed. Research suggests there's a relationship between vitamin D and depression, but there isn't enough evidence to support saying low vitamin D levels cause depression.

“It’s true people with depression are more likely to have a vitamin D deficiency. But it’s not always true everyone with depression should take a vitamin D supplement. If you struggle with mental illness, talk with your doctor about getting your vitamin D levels tested to determine if supplements are an option,” Dr. Ropte says.

What are Vitamin D Deficiency Symptoms?

The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are often subtle, so many people don’t know they’re deficient. Some of the effects of vitamin D deficiency include:

  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Bone pain
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Sour mood
  • Low energy
  • More frequent illness
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Weight gain
  • Hair loss

Vitamin D deficiency in babies and children can lead to a disease called Rickets. It's a serious bone problem causing bowed legs. Dr. Ropte says low vitamin D levels in children are also associated with allergies, asthma and eczema. In adults, it can lead to osteoporosis (weak/brittle bones) or osteopenia (soft bones).

Who's at Risk for a Vitamin D Deficiency?

Sunlight is one of the ways we get vitamin D into our bodies naturally, so people who spend most of their time indoors, such as older individuals, or those who live in a facility like a nursing home, are at increased risk for low vitamin D. People with darker skin, or those with light skin who minimize exposure to sunlight, are also at risk.

Certain medical conditions can also increase the likelihood of vitamin D deficiency. Those with GI tract diseases, like celiac disease, and those who’ve had bariatric surgery, are more likely to have a deficiency. Finally, people with chronic kidney and liver disease are at higher risk.

How Much Vitamin D Do I Need Per Day?

Besides going outdoors in the sunshine, there are two others ways to improve the amount of vitamin D in your system: eating foods rich in vitamin D and supplements.

“Adding an over-the-counter vitamin D supplement can make improvements in just three to four months time. Vitamin D with a strength of 1000-2000 international units daily is the recommended dose for most adults,” Dr. Ropte says.

Most multivitamins contain vitamin D, so extra supplementation isn't always necessary. There can be consequences to taking too much vitamin D, so high levels of vitamin D supplements aren’t meant for the average person. However, people with certain medical conditions may need a higher dose vitamin D supplement, which may require a prescription. You’ll want to chat with your doctor to find what’s right for you.

What Foods Have Vitamin D?

If you don't have a vitamin D deficiency, or don’t know if you are vitamin D deficient, it’s still a good idea to include foods in your diet with naturally occurring or fortified vitamin D. Some vitamin D food sources include:

  • Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, herring or sardines
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Egg yolks
  • Beef liver
  • Cod liver oil
  • Shrimp
  • Mushrooms

Other processed foods with added vitamin D usually say “fortified with vitamin D” on the package. These products include dairy products, orange juice and cereal.

Can I Get Enough Vitamin D from the Sun?

“People in the Midwest may not be able to get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone. It breaks down very rapidly, so in colder months, when we don’t see the sun frequently, we likely don’t get enough natural vitamin D production,” Dr. Ropte says.

If you're using the sunshine for a vitamin D boost, you only need about 10-15 minutes in direct sun to reap the benefits. Remember, too much sun is a risk factor of skin cancer. Wear sunscreen and you’ll still get your daily dose of vitamin D.

How Can I Test for Vitamin D Deficiency?

To check for a deficiency, a simple blood test will do the trick. Talk to your doctor about getting the test scheduled with your lab.

“The most accurate way to measure how much vitamin D is in your body is the 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. Many experts place the ideal level between 40 and 80 ng/mL with levels below 20 ng/mL as deficient,” Dr. Ropte says.

However, you’ll want to check with your insurance company before getting too far down the road. Dr. Ropte says, in her experience, the test isn’t always covered, and it could set you back 100 to 200 dollars.

Can Vitamin D Prevent or Treat COVID-19?

“There's a lot of interest in how vitamin D could potentially help prevent or even treat COVID-19. We know vitamin D is an important part of the body’s immune system, both by making it stronger in general, and by preventing it from overreacting when challenged with an infection. If you get diagnosed with a COVID-19 infection, consider asking your doctor if you should take a vitamin D supplement,” Dr. Ropte says.

Everyone should be vitamin D aware during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staying home and indoors during times of high COVID-19 spread may lead to low vitamin D levels. Anyone with a known vitamin D deficiency should follow their doctor's recommendations regarding supplements, evaluations and lab work to ensure the deficiency is corrected.

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