Why Vitamin D May Be the Secret in Staying Healthy this Winter
January 1, 2021
Last February, my physician, Connecticut-based Robert Ruxin M.D., informed me that my recent blood work showed a vitamin D level that was a click lower than optimal. “I was not alarmed but I was concerned,” he told me, pointing out that the deficiency combined with my tall stature (and advancing age) could increase my risk of osteoporosis, which causes bone brittleness, fractures, shrinkage, and even spinal deformities such as the dreaded “widow’s hump.” Ruxin immediately put me on 4,000 International Units (IUs) of vitamin D a day—roughly six times the recommended daily allowance—to boost me out of the danger zone and I've been enjoying a maintenance dose of my preferred chewable brand ever since.
More so resembling a hormone, vitamin D is not technically a vitamin—and our bodies do not produce it on their own; it can only be processed through consuming specific foods, such as fatty fish, egg yolks, and fortified dairy products, and synthesized through our skin with direct exposure to sunlight—UVB rays specifically. Its ability to assist in calcium absorption for good bone health is only one of its many critical biological benefits. “It’s not a panacea, but vitamin D seems to be essential for nearly all organ systems of the body,” says JoAnn Manson, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T. P. Chan School of Public Health, who led a 2018 study that linked vitamin D to a reduction in cancer deaths. Low vitamin D levels have also been connected to depression, anxiety, cardiovascular function, and neurodegenerative disorders. But most recently, the “sunshine vitamin” has been making headlines for something else: its role in possibly preventing and treating COVID-19. “It's critical to a healthy immune system,” says Manson. “But beyond that,” she continues, “vitamin D seems to have a benefit in tamping down the inflammation that can occur with COVID, and it may also have a role in reducing the risk of developing severe illness and a need for hospitalization.”
New York-based clinical herbalist Daniela Turley is not surprised by the promising results of these studies, noting the established link between vitamin D deficiency and a host of common, flu-like symptoms. Even before COVID, when patients complained of fatigue, muscle aching, or cramping, vitamin D “was often at play when the bloodwork came back,” she says. Turley, who has spent the better part of the last ten months prescribing customized immune-boosting tinctures and supplement regimens for her clients, finally created a catch-all product—her first—to keep up with the rising demand caused by the pandemic. Adaptivir, which just launched and which includes (among many other plant-derived ingredients) isatis for its antiviral properties and astragalus to encourage immunity and reduce inflammation, is a two part tincture and capsule system with 1,500 IUs of vitamin D. “With the two-step program, you’re providing optimal immune support by promoting the body’s natural defenses,” she says—which is a good prophylactic for everyone this winter, she suggests.
It turns out that I am not alone in lacking this potent substance. Long northern winters and air-conditioned summers, plus a growing photophobia due to skin cancer fears can all exacerbate what has become a nationwide issue. An estimated 41.6 percent of adults in the U.S. are vitamin D deficient, a number that rises to 82 percent for people with brown or black skin. (Those with darker complexions have higher melanin levels, which slows down the absorption of sunlight, meaning much longer exposure is necessary to produce healthy quantities of Vitamin D).
Good old fashion sunshine is one way to keep levels up, even as the days get shorter. “Ten or twelve minutes is usually all you need, even just on your scalp,” says dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine Alicia Zalka, M.D. But Zalka stresses that sun exposure should be safe and minimal, even in the colder months, and should always include SPF—and never involve a tanning bed. “If you're health-conscious enough to want to have good levels of vitamin D, you certainly don't want to risk getting skin cancer.”
But a concerted effort to check levels—and supplement when necessary—is the best way forward, suggests Ruxin, explaining that while optimal vitamin D levels are “based on the individual,” he seldom prescribes taking more than 5,000 IUs a day. (More is not always better, he warns, as too much of the nutrient can, in some people, negatively affect blood calcium levels.) “4,000 IUs may well be useful for all of us, and that is particularly true for people of color who already have lower Vitamin D levels,” agrees Meltzer. “The worst-case scenario,” adds Backman, “is that we find out vitamin D is not really helping at all against COVID. But since it’s good for our bones and our general health, at least we get that benefit.”
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