Having spent much of the last three months indoors, our bodies have been sorely missing out on a valuable dose of Vitamin D, leading sales of supplements to soar.
This has given what has often been described as the “sunshine vitamin” a long overdue spotlight.
A key ingredient in our makeup, it contributes to the regulation of the absorption of calcium and phosphorous in our bodies, helps our immune system fight off infection and ensures growth, developing our bones and teeth. It also lowers our risk of heart disease and eases symptoms of depression.
Our body produces vitamin D when it’s exposed to sunlight and we can also get a healthy dose of it from certain foods and supplements.
Without it, we can experience fatigue, body ache, bone or muscle pain. The body also won’t be able to absorb the calcium it’s taking in, so it will instead take calcium from our bones, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.
So, how can I get it and how much do I need?
Under very specific circumstances, a healthy amount of vitamin D can be acquired through just 10 to 15 minutes of sun on our bodies a few times a week, according to Harvard Health. But those circumstances are tough to come by, in terms of season, time, geography and air quality.
The amount we need and how much our body takes in also depends on age (older people have thinner skin, making it less efficient at absorption) and skin colour (those with more melanin have a lowered ability to produce vitamin D). In fact, those over 65 generate only a quarter as much vitamin D as people in their 20s, while Black people have, on average, half as much vitamin D in their blood as white people.
Not many foods contain vitamin D, unfortunately. Those that do include: eggs, salmon, tuna, mackerel, milk, yogurt, sardines, shrimp, cereal and orange juice.
Because it’s tough to get an appropriate intake through these foods and sunlight alone, and especially if you’re not a very big fish person, supplements are often recommended, along with a healthy diet.
But take them in moderation, and don’t overdo it. Too much can be toxic, and erase the benefits of the vitamin entirely. Those who suffer from vitamin D deficiency may be a different story, and should first consult with a doctor.
JoAnn Manson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recently told Medscape, “The recommended dietary allowance of vitamin D is 600-800 IU/daily, but during this period, a multivitamin or supplement containing 1,000-2,000 IU/daily of vitamin D would be reasonable.”
Can it help fight against coronavirus?
While there is currently no sufficient evidence that vitamin D can help reduce the risk of catching COVID-19, there are a few small studies that suggest those who are vitamin D deficient may be more strongly impacted by the virus.
According to a recent University of Chicago Medicine medical record review, people who were vitamin D deficient before the pandemic began were 77 per cent more likely to test positive for the virus compared to those with normal vitamin D levels.
The catch is that those who are most susceptible to COVID-19 are the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions. Black people are also four times more likely to be diagnosed with the virus than anyone else, according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics. All of these demographics are also most likely to be vitamin D deficient, which makes it difficult to tell if it actually plays a role.
We do know that, historically, healthy vitamin D levels have helped reduce the risk of respiratory infection, from the common cold all the way back to the 1918 influenza pandemic.
However, whether there is a connection between vitamin D levels and the impacts of the virus is actively being tested by researchers, meaning there will eventually be more clarity on the subject, and hopefully sooner rather than later.
Where do I go from here?
If you’re curious about your vitamin D levels, you can take a blood test to get more information, and consult with your doctor about how much more you might need, if at all, and how best to get it.
And while social distancing measures are still in effect, that doesn’t mean you can’t head out for a walk at least a few times a week. With the summer having finally arrived, roll back your sleeves, put on your shorts, slather on some sunscreen, and get strolling.
Again: just don’t overdo it.