Are You Getting Enough D? — The Unexpected Signs of Vitamin D Deficiency
by Catherine Morris | July 16, 2020, updated about 1 year ago
The superstar sunshine vitamin deserves the spotlight. A huge body of research has roundly established its health credentials, leading more and more people to reach for the supplement bottle. Before you jump on the vitamin D bandwagon it's a good idea to first establish if you are deficient. Too much vitamin D can be just as harmful as too little. Knowing your baseline before starting any supplement regime can help prevent accidental overdose, and adverse reactions.
Before you set foot in the doctor's office, here are some tell-tale signs that you need more D. Sure, you already know the most common signs of a vitamin D deficiency – things like fatigue and depression, but did you know it can also cause bone pain, and hair loss?
Here are some of the more obscure red flags that you should look for if you’re worried that your vitamin D levels need a boost.
We've all heard of rickets and their link to vitamin D deficiency during childhood, but what's less well-known is osteomalacia. This is basically adult rickets, and it causes the bones to soften. It can cause intense pain and muscle aches.
Described as a dull, aching pain felt in the pelvis, hips, legs and ribs, the symptoms of osteomalacia can also affect the joints and the lower back. That nagging ache you dismissed as poor posture could be pointing to something more serious. If it's chronic pain that doesn't go away despite your yoga practice and your ergonomic office chair definitely look into your vitamin D levels.
People who regularly engage in high-impact exercise may need higher levels of the D to reduce their risk of stress fractures, thanks to its role in building bone density.
Maintaining good bone health and mobility are particularly important as you age, so it's a good idea to supplement with vitamin D now to prevent osteomalacia and osteoporosis later in life. A recent study looked at patients from the US and Canada who were over 65 years of age and recovering from hip fracture surgery. Researchers discovered that those with the highest levels of vitamin D had a higher likelihood of walking 30 days after their operation, and had increased mobility overall.
It's normal for healthy adults to shed up to 100 hairs a day, but if you're looking in the mirror and seeing thin patches or pulling clumps from your hairbrush, something's up.
Vitamin D helps create new hair follicles. If your levels are low, you're not going to see new growth, and you might even start to lose what you've got.
Hair loss, or alopecia, can be devastating but there is hope. Supplementing with vitamin D “drastically stimulated” hair growth in a study on hairless mice, and there are reported cases of regrowth in humans with non-scarring alopecia.
Alopecia Areata, is an autoimmune condition affecting around 2 percent of the population, and causes hair loss all over the body. While vitamin D has not been studied as a specific treatment for this disease, studies comparing the vitamin D levels of sufferers against non-sufferers consistently show that the former were deficient – indicating that supplementation might help.
Trichotillomania is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder where sufferers feel a strong desire to pull out their hair, usually when stressed, anxious or frightened. In an effort to release these negative emotions, people with trichotillomania pluck repeatedly at hair from their scalp, eyebrows, and even eyelashes. Trichotillomania patients treated with vitamin D reported hair regrowth over 3-4 months, and a reduced desire to pull. What's more astonishing is that the vitamin didn't just target their symptoms, but also helped treat their underlying OCD because vitamin D regulates mood, and improves mental health.
Poor Dental Health
We don't often think about our vitamin D levels as they relate to our teeth. Just as vitamin D is vital for bone health, it's also got a role to play in teeth – it keeps them strong, healthy, and free from decay. It performs these functions by improving teeth quality, and by protecting teeth from bacteria.
Vitamin D mineralises teeth by promoting calcium absorption. The better the mineral content, the hardier the tooth. This process begins before birth – pregnant women with low vitamin D levels are more likely to see tooth decay in their infants.
Strong teeth with good quality enamel are less likely to crack, experience growth abnormalities, and require fillings. Fillings are required when bacteria attack the tooth, wear it away and cause cavities, but Vitamin D can help here too.
Antimicrobial peptides are a key part of the body's immune response, providing the first line of defence against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and even cancer. Vitamin D stimulates production of these all-important front line fighters to ward off oral disease and decay. It also has an anti-inflammatory effect which makes it helpful in treating gum disease, in particular chronic periodontitis where the gums become irritated and inflamed after exposure to microbes on tooth enamel.
If you've noticed issues with your teeth and gums, vitamin D might be a way to prevent a small problem from becoming an ordeal. The mouth is the gateway to the body, and poor oral health can have significant effects on other systems. The low-grade inflammation associated with gum disease can allow bacteria to spread to other parts of the body, and is linked to cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimers.
Slow Healing Wounds
Our bodies are truly amazing—break a leg and the bone knits together again, damage your liver and it regenerates, lose a nail and it grows back. Our healing powers are incredible, but they need the right materials to be at their best.
When we get a gash, the body's first response is to activate its epidermal stem cells to regenerate skin and seal up the cut. For this to happen, vitamin D receptors must be engaged. It's a reciprocal arrangement – just as skin helps create vitamin D (through UVB light), vitamin D is needed to create new skin. So if you have a scrape that just won't go away or refuses to scab over, it might be a sign that there's not enough vitamin D in your system to help the wound to repair itself.
A study of patients with leg ulcers found that those who supplemented with vitamin D healed better than those without – shrinking their wound by 7 cms, compared with 2.5 cms in the control group.
Research from the University of California shows how vitamin D3 has a vital role in protecting skin from infection as it heals, suggesting that a deficiency makes patients more vulnerable to harmful bacteria.
Medical science is jumping on the wound-healing powers of vitamin D following a trial of vitamin D enhanced surgical bandages at Oregon State University. The nano-fiber dressings used in the study contained a bioactive form of vitamin D3, which delivered consistent levels of the vitamin to the skin over a four week period. Given that one of vitamin D's jobs is to stimulate production of antimicrobial peptides, the dressing can help reduce surgical site infections, and therefore lead to better recovery outcomes.
Vitamin D has also shown potential in treating and healing burns, with less scarring and fewer complications.
Acne & Other Skin Conditions
Acne, the most common skin complaint, can happen for all sorts of reasons – hormonal changes, stress, air pollution, or poor diet, but it can also be a sign that you're not getting enough protective vitamin D. Research indicates that supplementing might be worth a try if looking for ways to clear up your skin, especially considering the dangers of some conventional acne prescriptions.
The link between acne and vitamin D, and the use of the vitamin as a possible treatment was first clinically explored in a Korean study, published in 2016. Researchers put 80 acne sufferers on a vitamin D supplement regime for two months. The team saw an improvement in the test subjects' skin and theorized this was down to vitamin D's anti-inflammatory properties. They also noted vitamin D deficiency was more common among acne sufferers than those in the control group with clear skin.
Vitamin D deficiency is common in people with psoriasis and, while that doesn't necessarily suggest that the vitamin can treat the ailment, it does indicate a link. Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes dry, flaky skin and scaly patches. Given vitamin D's success in supporting the immune system and treating other autoimmune conditions, it's definitely worth further consideration as a possible natural remedy.
Around 15-20 percent of Canadians suffer with atophic dermatitis or eczema, according to the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. Eczema is more common in northern latitudes leading some experts to suggest that vitamin D plays a part in this troublesome disorder which causes itchy, dry and inflamed skin.
While UV radiation therapy has been used to treat eczema for many years, recent concerns about skin cancer have led some doctors to switch to oral vitamin D supplements instead, with positive results.
There's evidence that vitamin D can help with skin aging too. Studies suggest that keeping your levels healthy can lengthen your telomeres, the cap on the end of your chromosomes that shorten as you age. Extending telomeres can stave off aging and disease, keeping cells healthier for longer. In short, promoting younger looking skin.
Easy Ways to Boost Your Vitamin D Levels
An estimated 1 billion people worldwide are deficient in vitamin D. Those most at risk are the elderly, people with darker pigmentation in their skin, and anyone on medications that interfere with absorption.
It's summer. The sun is shining. You can just step outside and get a dose of vitamin D any time you like, right? Not quite. While sunshine is the easiest and quickest way to get a hit of vitamin D, it's not without risk. The sun's UV rays are good for us in small doses, but prolonged exposure can increase your risk of premature skin aging, skin cancer, and DNA damage according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. As with most things, moderation is key. Experts recommend 10-15 minutes in the sun during the hours of 10am and 3pm for safe vitamin D absorption.
If you're not a sun-worshipper, or you live in a cloudy climate, you can also get Vitamin D from your food. A whopping 50 percent of people do not get enough vitamin D in their diet. Looking at what you eat is a good place to start if you're worried about your own levels.
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna, are chock-full of vitamin D, but choose a high-quality source – according to one study, farmed salmon contains 75 percent less vitamin D than wild.
If none of those foods appeal, supplementing with a high-quality product can be helpful. If you do go the route of supplementing, it's worth bearing in mind the official recommended dietary allowance per day provided by Health Canada—
Infants aged 0-12 months: 400 IU
Children and adults: 600 IU
Adults over 70: 800 IU
If you're eager to get more vitamin D, but unsure where to start, Which Doctor can help. Our network of dietitians, nutritionists, naturopaths and holistic health coaches is just a click away. Book virtual sessions, in-person treatments or discounted services through our practitioner platform at Whichdoctor.com.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.