Do You Have Low Vitamin D Levels? Symptoms of Deficiency and How to Treat Them

It sure does feel good to soak in the sun’s rays on a nice summer day. The reason why you feel good in the sun is because the rays of the sun soak into your skin and then start positive chemical reactions that are making you healthy.

The sun’s rays convert a type of cholesterol in the skin called 7-dehydrocholesterol to pre-vitamin D3. This pre-vitamin D is turned into vitamin D3. In your body, every cell and organ has a need for this vitamin.

For many years, scientists were in the dark about all the good things that vitamin D did for your body but now they now the truth. Without it, your bones will soften, you’ll be more susceptible to infection, diabetes and death from any cause, and you’ll have fatigue and joint pain. A vitamin D deficiency makes life miserable!

We All Get Sunshine So Why Is There a Global Epidemic?

The sun shines brightly in most parts of the world, yet , the sad news is that vitamin D deficiency is now a global epidemic. About 1 billion people have a vitamin D deficiency, which puts them at risk for many health issues.

In the U.S. alone, about 64% of Americans don’t have enough of the vitamin in their body to keep all tissues operating at peak capacity. Are you one of those who have a deficiency? Keep reading to find out.

Is Vitamin D Deficiency Related to Programming About Sunscreens?

Part of the problem of so many people who are deficient may be because of what everyone thought was true about the sun’s damaging rays. For decades, doctors, dermatologists, and the American Cancer Society launched public educational campaigns about how skin cancer is caused by sunlight. They said you had to slather on plenty of sunscreen before you set foot outside into the sunlight. Do you remember these campaigns?

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According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, death rates from melanoma cancer rose 4% per year since 1973 in the United States. These cases caused 79% of all the deaths from skin cancer. This is what made everyone believe it was so important to guard against the sun.

Over 20 years later in 1999, Australian scientists reported that sunscreen prevented people from getting squamous cell carcinoma by 40%, but not melanoma or basal cell carcinoma.

Nevertheless, America adopted the “Slip, Slop, Slap” slogan from a skin care prevention campaign in Australia and added the word “Wrap” to it. This meant slip on a shirt to cover as much of the skin as possible, slop on the sunscreen copiously, slap on a hat to cover the scalp from the rays, and wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes, as well.

The Two Problems With Sunscreen

sunscreen-vitamin-dSunlight is primarily UVA and UVB.  We apply sunscreen to prevent the sunlight from causing skin cancer and skin aging, but sunscreens absorb most of the UVB rays but not UVA rays. Here’s the problem: it’s the UVA rays that cause skin cancer. People were told to apply an SPF 15 sunscreen or higher and keep reapplying it when out in the sun, especially if sweating, swimming or towel drying, and do it even when clouds cover up the sun during the day. But since it’s blocking only UVB and not UVA, it’s actually making it easier for you to get skin cancer. And what is this practice doing to the person’s vitamin D levels?

It took a few decades for scientists to figure it out.

Sunscreen is a mixture of many ingredients and you could separate them into two lists – one list of ingredients that absorb UVA radiation (UVA protectors) and another that absorbs UVB radiation (UVB protectors).

So the practice of applying sunscreen and staying outside actually causes two problems:

  1. We get more exposure to cancer-causing UVA rays because we don’t feel the burn.
  2. We get less exposure to Vitamin D-stimulating UVB rays.

Here’s a list of some of those ingredients:

UVB Protectors

  • Cinnamates
  • Ethylhexyl p-Methoxycinnamate
  • Glyceryl aminobenzoate
  • Hormomenthyl salicylate
  • PABA
  • Padimate O
  • Padimate A
  • Octyl Salicylate
  • Octyl Dimethyl PABA
  • Octocrylene
  • Octyl Methoxycinnamarate
  • Salicylates
  • Triethanolamine
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide

UVA Protectors

  • Avobenzone
  • Benzoophenones
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Oxybenzone

If a sunscreen ingredient blocks UVB rays, what it’s blocking are the sun’s rays that help you convert sunshine into vitamin D. Using an SPF 15 sunscreen blocks your ability to convert the rays to vitamin D by 99%. And by blocking UVB rays, your body can’t produce the vitamin D3 precursor. That means you won’t get your vitamin D from the primary source – the sun.

And meanwhile, you are getting a lot of UVA rays that cause cancer.

Couple this with misinformation that a top dermatologist association tells everyone puts you can get enough vitamin D from a diet rich in natural or fortified sources of vitamin D – and you have a recipe for vitamin D deficiency in 65% of the population or most of your family members, both young and old.

Why can’t you get enough vitamin D from foods? Well, take a look at the best food sources of vitamin D below:

Top Vitamin D Food Sources

  • Cod liver oil, 1 tablespoon 1360 IU
  • Swordfish, 3 ounces cooked 566 IU
  • Sockeye salmon, 3 ounces cooked 447 IU
  • Tuna fish, canned in water, 3 ounces 154 IU
  • Orange juice fortified with Vit D, 1 cup 137 IU
  • Milk, vitamin D-fortified, any type, 1 cup 115-124 IU
  • Yogurt, vitamin D-fortified, 6 ounces 80 IU
  • Whole egg, 1 large 41 IU
  • Fortified Cereals, 1 cup 40 IU

Source 

These are the foods highest in Vitamin D, yet what this list tells you that if you want to get a minimum of 2000 IU per day, there’s really no good way to do it without consuming cod liver oil daily. Is that something you want to do?

Vitamin D Requirements are More Than What Most People Think

The optimal level of vitamin D in your blood should be 50 ng/ml. Alternative health experts like Dr. Joe Mercola, D.O. recommend higher levels if you have a previous history of cancer.

Yet most medical doctors seem to think you’re okay if your levels are 30 ng/ml. The Endocrine Society issued its clinical practice guideline in 2011 and recommended that at least 1500-2000 IU vitamin D in supplement form be taken by adults and at least 1000 IU /day to children and adolescents to raise low levels.

If your Vitamin D levels are low, you are more susceptible to a variety of health disorders.

Vitamin D Deficiency Symptoms and Illnesses

Vitamin D deficiency is linked to all these diseases:

  • Osteomalacia, a disorder in adults that causes soft bones
  • Cancer of the colon, prostate, pancreas and breast (oh boy, who wants these?)
  • Infections (If you get a cold or flu every year, this is not normal.)
  • Heart disease
  • Osteoporosis (This means brittle bones.)
  • Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Death from any cause

Almost everyone with heart failure has low levels of vitamin D. In fact, scientists even discovered that every part of the heart and circulatory system has a lot of vitamin D receptors. The whole circulatory system depends on vitamin D for optimal function.

Do you or anyone in your family have diabetes? It may not be genetic, but could be related to a vitamin D deficiency instead.

Vitamin D can also play a critical role in developing both types of diabetes. Diabetics are notorious for their low levels of vitamin D. Studies show that a vitamin D deficiency can make you 91% more likely to progress to insulin resistance and more than double your risk for progressing to full blown diabetes.

And what about Alzheimer’s Disease or Parkinson’s disease? People with these disorders usually have low levels of vitamin D, too.

Maybe you don’t have diabetes or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s at all. That’s good… but what about memory loss and a slowing down of brain functions?

Long-term studies show that a vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of cognitive decline of any type by 40% to 60%. All learning and memory depends on vitamin D.

No one knows yet whether there’s a correlation to kids with learning disorders but it makes sense to have children tested for a deficiency, just to make sure a deficiency isn’t interfering with their ability to learn.

Low levels of vitamin D in the blood are also strongly associated with an elevated cancer risk. The numbers tell us that low levels of vitamin D can increase the risk of developing cancer by 83 to 150%.

There’s a direct connection of vitamin D deficiency and autoimmune disorders, too. When low levels are restored to a healthy range, these diseases don’t worsen.

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This means that every cell needs this vitamin in order for you to have optimum health. It also means that you need more than the earlier recommended amount of 300 IU or even 800 IU per day to support all functions.

So what do you do? Is it realistic for you to eat swordfish, salmon and tuna every day?  Or do you get in the habit of taking one tablespoon cod liver oil daily like people used to do in the 1950s and 60s? Or is there another smarter way to do it?

How To Treat Vitamin D Deficiency

Part of the problem for diagnosis is that there aren’t clear-cut signs of a vitamin D deficiency. Some of these signs include: depression, sweaty head, gut trouble and aching bones and joints – and these could be due to many other causes.

Because of the chance that you are in the 65% of the population that has a vitamin D deficiency, you will need a blood test to check your status. In many cases, your doctor will not offer this test and you’ll have to request it. Ask for a 25-hydroxy-vitamin D blood test.

If your doctor won’t order it, it’s best you go online and order it yourself. Your health is important enough to do this – and taking initiative here can mean the difference between a poor and a high quality of life. One place to go to order it is the Life Extension Foundation.

Don’t decide to do it later! By procrastinating, you risk developing any of the previously mentioned health disorders – and it’s no fun to have to deal with one more health issue in life.

Once you know your vitamin D level, you can start to take action and make sure your doctor is giving you the correct treatment advice.

If you have a vitamin D deficiency, your doctor will recommend one of these:

  1. Tell you to eat more vitamin D foods and get more sun exposure.
  2. Give you shots or capsules of vitamin D, usually in doses of 50,000 IU vitamin D2 to take over a period of time.
  3. Tell you to take vitamin D3 supplements.

Why Recommendation #1 Doesn’t Work

You already know that recommendation #1 of eating more vitamin D foods is not going to cut it. Getting out in the sun is often a great solution assuming you have that option where you live and depending on the season.  The other issue is there are some people who don’t absorb vitamin D as well as others.

Even if you get out in the sun, it doesn’t mean your levels will rise to where they are supposed to be. Where you live affects how much sunlight you absorb in your skin and different health problems do, too.

For example, if you’re obese, you probably have abnormal vitamin D absorption in your skin. If you have any type of liver, digestive or kidney disease, your body can’t absorb the vitamin from the skin as well.

If your skin is dark, you won’t absorb as many rays as someone with lighter skin. And if you live more north of the equator, it will be more difficult to get as much vitamin D from the sun on a daily basis and cumulatively over the year.

If you’re taking certain types of medications including steroids, weight loss drugs, seizure medications, and cholesterol-lowering drug cholestyramine, you’re also at risk for not making enough vitamin D from sunlight.

What this all means is that you can’t count on getting 10 or 20 minutes of sunlight per day to raise your vitamin D levels to normal.

You can actually calculate how much exposure to ultraviolet light you need to get 1000 IU, based on your geographical location. Click here to find the calculator, but do remember that this calculation won’t consider whether or not you have absorption issues due to different types of diseases or medications that interfere with vitamin D absorption.

In one study at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in 2010, researchers found that spending 3 to 8 minutes in the sun at 12 noon EST with 25.5% of the body exposed in the winter months in Boston would synthesize 400 IU vitamin D.  Thus, to get 5000 IU vitamin D per day, you’d need about 38 to 75 minutes of sunshine per day.

Why Recommendation #2 Doesn’t Work

Sometimes doctors will opt for the pharmaceutical preparations of vitamin D. This is understandable since doctors will almost always use drugs over anything natural, although more physicians are now using nutrition in their practices than ever. However, vitamin D2 is not as active in the body and it doesn’t last as long in the body as vitamin D3. Thus, they’ve chosen a less effective method to get the job done of boosting your levels of vitamin D.

Also, studies still don’t show that one large dose of vitamin D is better than smaller dosages taken over time. Your body is made to take in smaller doses, not large doses, and no one really knows if large doses are affecting other parts of the body. So safety is a potential problem.

Many clinical nutritionists recommend 5000-10,000 IU vitamin D3 daily for 3 to 6 months in an adult respectively, to overcome a deficiency. Then they’ll lower the dosage to 15,000 IU per week for maintenance.

Small children need at least 400 IU but preferably 1000 IU daily. Getting the kids’ levels back to normal can make a significant impact in the number of colds and flu they contract.

Why Recommendation #3 Is The Only Common Sense Solution to Increasing Vitamin D Levels

Vitamin D3 supplements are the ideal solution. With these supplements, your vitamin D levels will rise steadily. If you have any of the symptoms of deficiency, they will start going away from the first week of supplementation and on.

When you know your initial test results, you can take the supplements and then retest in three months to determine how much longer you’ll need higher therapeutic doses. You can then retest annually to make sure the levels stay in the normal zone.

Some aspects of your health are better taken into your own hands. In many cases, diagnosing and reversing a vitamin D deficiency may be one of them and you’ll have to order your own test, but it’s well worth it. Your health is worth everything to you and it’s only when it’s gone that you realize its value. Work with your doctor or clinical nutritionist to get your vitamin D levels right!

Resources
  • American Cancer Society Skin Cancer Prevention Activities. Accessed July 13, 2015. http://www.cancer.org/healthy/morewaysacshelpsyoustaywell/acs-skin-cancer-prevention-activities
  • https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/#h3
  • Holick, M.F. Sunlight, ultraviolet radiation, vitamin D and skin cancer: how much sunlight do we need? Adv Exp Med Biol 2014; 810: 1-16.
  • www.skinmedica.com
    http://www.skinmedica.com/beautytalk/vitamin-d-deficiency-and-sunscreen
  • Choosing the Best Sunscreen Ingredients. Accessed July 13, 2015. http://www.sunscreeningredients.com/
  • The Ingredients in Sunscreen Destroying Your Health. Accessed July 13, 2015. http://foodbabe.com/2013/05/05/what-you-need-to-know-before-you-ever-buy-sunscreen-again/
  • http://www.edoctoronline.com/diseases-conditions.asp?Sunscreen-Skin-Cancer-and-UVA=0&c=2&articleid=838
  • Lips, P., van Schoor, N.M., and de Jongh, R.T. Diet, sun, and lifestyle as determinants of vitamin D status. Ann NY Acad Sci 2014 May; 1317: 92-98.
  • Terushkin, V., et al. Estimated equivalency of vitamin D production from natural sunshine versus oral vitamin D supplementation across seasons at two U.S. latitudes. J Am Acad Dermatol 2010 Jun; 62(6): 929.

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About the author

Dr. France Carpentier

Dr. France Carpentier has over forty years of experience as a healthcare professional. She started as a Registered Nurse in Quebec, Canada, which was followed by over thirty years as a Chiropractor in Florida. She has always had a focus on nutrition using a holistic approach to health and wellness.