VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY: A NEW EPIDEMIC?
By Waldo Acebo, MD
It is likely that a family member, a friend, a co-worker, or you, have been diagnosed with Vitamin D deficiency recently. As you may already know, people’s fears to the increasing prevalence of the deadly skin cancer, melanoma, have led many to avoid sun exposure like they never did before. Of course, this fear comes from the well documented fact that excessive exposure to sunlight and sun-burning, while as a child or young adult, increases the risk of all types of skin cancer. This behavior has led to Vitamin D deficiency as an unrecognized epidemic in both children and adults throughout the world. This is especially true for people more prone to vitamin D deficiency.
If you are a dark-skinned individual, the melanin in your skin acts as a natural sunscreen reducing vitamin D production. As you grow older, your kidneys decrease their ability of changing vitamin D into its active form. If you are obese or overweight, your vitamin D, being a fat soluble vitamin, is sequestered in your fat cells leading to low levels of vitamin D in your blood. If you are someone who don’t consume enough foods rich in vitamin D such as fish, margarine, butter, eggs, and soymilk to name a few, you are at increased risk for vitamin D deficiency. If you take medications that increase vitamin D metabolism, you are also at high risk. If you are affected by an intestinal fat mal-absorption syndrome, such as Crohn’s disease, Whipple’s disease, Cystic fibrosis, and Sprue, you are unable to efficiently absorb vitamin D.
Why is vitamin D so important?
The benefits of vitamin D are many. Vitamin D helps your body to use the calcium and phosphorus from your food, thus preventing osteoporosis, osteopenia, and fractures. It also regulates normal cellular differentiation, preventing certain cancers such as prostate, pancreatic, breast, ovarian, and colon cancer. It increases immunity which prevents infectious diseases, upper respiratory tract infections, and autoimmune diseases as multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Vitamin D decreases the occurrence of inflammatory conditions like periodontitis, tooth loss, and asthma. Vitamin D prevents PMS, sleeping disorders, depression, schizophrenia, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It can also prevent muscle weakness, muscle wasting, chronic fatigue, and obesity. Vitamin D deficiency is associated to chronic conditions like hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes.
Am I vitamin D deficient?
The 25-hydroxyvitamin test or 25(OH) D is considered the most reliable form of testing for Vitamin D deficiency. You can have your physician order a 25(OH) D test to determine if you have optimal levels of Vitamin D in your blood. Optimum levels are approximately 50 - 80ng/mL. This test is usually covered by all health insurances if ordered by a physician when the deficiency is suspected.
At this time, I advise, even to healthy people (those without the diseases of vitamin D deficiency) to seek out a knowledgeable physician and have their 25(OH) D level measured, since vitamin D deficiency has such important health implications, and is so prevalent nowadays.
Treating disease with Vitamin D?
The only way you can know how much vitamin D you need to take is by getting your blood tested, and evaluating your individual needs to keep your level above 50 ng/mL. If your levels are below 50ng/mL, or you have any of the diseases of vitamin D deficiency, you need to be under the care of a physician.
Our skin is the major source of vitamin D; 90–95% of most people’s vitamin D requirements come from casual sun exposure. Limit your sun exposure to 15 minutes at a time. Vitamin D production is already maximized before the skin turns pink, while further skin exposure only increases your risk of skin cancer. Take into account that dark-skinned individuals require longer exposure.
Your physician might also recommend that you eat more foods rich in vitamin D, like the ones mentioned above. He should also prescribe the correct vitamin D supplements to take your levels between 50 to 80ng/mL, until re-tested and made sure that the levels are within normal limits. He should take into account that if you are overweight or obese, you need at least twice as much vitamin D to satisfy your body’s needs.
In order to get the adequate amount of Vitamin D that your body requires, it is important that you and your primary physician find the right balance between sun exposure, food and supplementation.
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