I don’t know about you, but I keep hearing a lot about vitamin D lately. I’m hearing experts talk about how sufficient vitamin D levels will decrease your risk of severe complications with COVID. Doctors are prescribing “super doses” of vitamin D supplements to make sure their patients are at sufficient levels. It sounds like a magic supplement to me, and I started to do some research myself.
I’ve concluded that our health improves as vitamin D levels reach optimal ranges. Vitamin D helps regulate our hormones, and optimal levels can help optimize your menstrual cycle. A large portion of Americans have levels under 30, which is the standard level suggested by labs. If you don’t take a vitamin D supplement or sit out in the sun without sunscreen, regularly, then you could be vitamin D deficient, and supplementation could be helpful.
Learning that sunshine is so crucial for our health was surprising to me. A motto I’ve had in the past was to “embrace my paleness.” I’m fair-skinned and burn easily, so I’ve listened to health advice to stay out of the sun. Dermatologists would love my sunscreen habits because I slather it on whenever I’m outside. After learning some more, I’m a little worried that I may have been doing some more harm than good!
What is Vitamin D and How Do I Get It?
“What is vitamin D” might seem like an obvious question, but vitamin D is a pre-hormone, not a vitamin. It converts into a hormone that helps our body work optimally. Vitamin D helps our bone health, our mood, our energy, our immunity, and more. The easiest way to get vitamin D is from the sun. UVB rays cause cholesterol in your body to convert to vitamin D. Common knowledge says that cholesterol is unhealthy, and we all want low levels. However, we need cholesterol to keep us healthy. And one example of that is people with higher cholesterol levels can make more vitamin D from the sun.
There are also a lot of affordable vitamin D supplements out there. It’s helpful to supplement a little with vitamin D before trying to get it from the sun because once you are at sufficient levels, your skin will start making a natural “sunscreen” for your skin. Your body produces melanin to make your skin pigment darker – a tan! As you get more melanin, you can’t absorb as much sun. But you are also less likely to burn. Humans have evolved to have darker skin around the equator and lighter skin further from the equator because of vitamin D production. We needed protection from the sun when we’re exposed to high levels every day. But if we can only get sun for 4 or 5 months a year and only for a few afternoon hours, we need lighter skin to absorb more sunlight.
Doctors agree that vitamin D levels need to be at least at 30. Some experts, however, are recommending the minimum blood serum levels to be as high as 50. Because vitamin D is so related to the sun, our blood levels fluctuate throughout the year. They are highest in August after everyone has been in the sun all summer and lowest in February after everyone avoided the sun all winter. However, just supplementing without knowing your levels may not be the healthiest thing to do. Make sure you talk to a doctor before taking vitamin D supplements. Extremely high levels of vitamin D can potentially cause high calcium levels, which could cause kidney damage or weak bones from the calcium loss, among others.
Diseases that are Associated with Vitamin D
If you are interested in learning more about vitamin D, I watched “D is for Debacle” on YouTube. It talks a lot about the different diseases that are related to vitamin D. Some of the most compelling statistics I pulled from the video are below.
- Your breast cancer risk is reduced by 50% if your vitamin D levels are at 51, and there is a 67% reduction if your vitamin D levels are at 65.
- Breast cancer mortality goes down when vitamin D levels are over 25.
- Endometrial cancer rates are reduced by 35% if your vitamin D levels are at 50.
The video also focused a lot on multiple sclerosis. It made me worry a little about my childhood because I was always hiding from the sun. MS prevalence is correlated to our distance from the equator during our childhood years and our mother’s vitamin D levels during pregnancy. If we lived in Canada as a child, for example, then moved to San Diego, where we’re getting more sun as an adult, we are still at a high risk of MS because of lack of sun (and vitamin D) as a child. There was some information in the video about supplementing breast milk fed babies, and how mothers don’t have vitamin D levels that are high enough to give the baby enough vitamin D from breast milk. I thought it was fascinating that they called out that in general, women have higher vitamin D blood levels compared to men who are in similar situations. The theory is that vitamin D is critical for fetal development, and women need to have higher levels in case they get pregnant. Honestly, this scares me when I think about my kids. I’m pretty sure I was deficient when pregnant with both of them, and I didn’t know about supplementing with my first. I’ve also been overprotective with sunscreen in the past. But in recent weeks, I’ve been allowing them to be outside for 10 minutes here and there without sunscreen, hoping that I can make up for lower vitamin D levels earlier in their lives.
I want to go back to COVID and vitamin D, too, since that is what has brought this all up for me. There are a lot of studies looking into the relationship between lower vitamin D levels and more severe outcomes due to COVID. I haven’t been able to find anything that definitively says there is a relationship, but there are correlations. I read that Italy has some of the worst vitamin D levels in Europe, and look at how their outcomes for COVID were much worse than other countries. It’s also interesting that the flu tends to go away in the summer. It comes back once it’s cold again, and people aren’t getting as much vitamin D. COVID rates are also suddenly going up in Brazil, where they are beginning their “winter” season.
I have a theory. I keep reading about the relationship between COVID-19 and vitamin D. I also keep hearing that “maybe the virus mutated, it’s just not as contagious as is was before.” Can it all be due to vitamin D levels? My friend mentioned she knows two people who got COVID and didn’t pass it to their families. Maybe her friends’ immune systems were compromised for some reason, but their family members had sufficient vitamin D levels because of the sun and warm weather. That allowed them to fight it off. Maybe if we all keep our vitamin D levels high, our flu season won’t be so dramatic, and the second wave of COVID will be less likely. I have no way to research this, but I talked to a hospitalist about it. He responded that he’s reaching for his vitamin D supplements now!
How Vitamin D Reacts With Your Hormones
Since vitamin D is a pre-hormone, I found a bunch of hormone interactions in medical journals! But I’m going to focus on some women’s health examples.
- There is a strong association between vitamin D levels and female fertility – (Hormone 2017)
- Vitamin D is related to IVF outcomes – (Hormone 2017)
- Vitamin D supplementation has been shown to reduce PCOS symptoms – (Hormone 2017)
- Sufficient vitamin D levels reduce menstrual pain – (D is for Debacle)
It seems likely that the underlying reason we get these benefits from vitamin D is insulin regulation. Vitamin D regulates calcium levels, and proper insulin action requires optimal levels of calcium. We have insulin receptors on our ovaries. So appropriate levels of vitamin D allow us to have appropriate insulin levels, which regulates the ovaries, and the ovaries produce our sex hormones. It’s all related!
We shouldn’t be scared of sunshine! In small doses, not allowing our skin to burn, the sun can improve our health. The vitamin D that our skin can create with the help of sunshine can help optimize our hormones and decrease the risk of many diseases.