My New Deficiency: Vitamin D and Why It Matters

By: Red Hot Mamas

Published: May 26, 2010

“You have a vitamin D deficiency,” my doctor declares at my last routine visit. I had no idea what this meant, but from the tone of his voice, I could tell it wasn’t good news. I’m deficient in many other ways, now he comes out and says I need to add vitamin D to the list?

“Oh my goodness,” I thought to myself, “Am I going to be ok?”

My doc sensed my concern as I inched forward on my suddenly not so comfortable chair. We’ve known about the benefits of vitamin D for almost a century. In the 1920s, researchers at Johns Hopkins University isolated a compound found in cod liver oil and labeled it “vitamin D”. They found cod liver oil helps prevent weak bones and the condition of rickets. Milk has been fortified with vitamin D since the 1930s and foods in 2000. So now, why am I suddenly afflicted with a deficiency?

I guess I’m not the only one. About 40% of the U.S. population is vitamin-D deficient. In a 2003 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 93% of patients suffering from chronic musculoskeletal pain turned out to be vitamin D deficient. One hundred percent of the East Africans, African Americans and Hispanics were vitamin D deficient. As people age, skin can’t produce vitamin D as efficiently as it can at a younger age. Deficiencies can come about when intake is lower than recommended, sun exposure is limited and kidneys can’t get vitamin D to work properly. Diets may bring about a deficiency as well (i.e., lactose intolerance and vegetarianism).

“Vitamin D is very important,” says my doctor as if I’m not aware of all its benefits. He goes on to say something about immunoregulatory cells, parathyroids, prostate, hydroxyvitamin levels in older adults, blah, blah, blah. This is why I’m not a doctor.

“Do we really need to talk about this?” I think to myself, as if this is my most embarrassing deficiency to-date. Sure, I know vitamin D and calcium is essential for preventing osteoporosis, especially for those of us women lucky enough (ahem) to be in peri-post menopause.

“Bones and muscles, right?” I asked doc. I was surprised to learn that the benefits of vitamin D far exceeded my expectations! Not only is vitamin D important in the role of calcium absorption, apparently it is also important in fighting a whole slew of diseases including Type 1 diabetes, colon, breast and prostate cancers along with averting cardiovascular disease, hypertension, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Premenopausal women with a vitamin D deficiency are at a higher risk for osteoporosis, breast and colon cancer. For postmenopausal women, vitamin D deficiencies can lead to greater risk of the same conditions in addition to muscle weakness, poor posture, falls and fractures due to osteoporosis, cognitive impairment, depression and frailty.

“Do you know how to get vitamin D?” Doc pushes on. Hmmm… Well, I soak in plenty of sunshine, drink lots of milk and I even take calcium supplements. Isn’t this enough? To his credit, I guess he didn’t say I was calcium deficient, only vitamin D deficient. I learned you can get vitamin D in three different ways: through skin, diet and supplements. For sunshine, doc lets me know a few times a week for about 15 minutes without sunscreen usually produces enough vitamin D most people need.

Normal doses of vitamin D are around 400 and 800 International Units (IU) for children and adults up to age 50, 400 IU for adults ages 51-70, and 600 IU for adults over 70. The Institute of Medicine recommends not exceeding 2,000 IU per day, but the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) suggests the current recommended levels should be more like 10,000 IU. For me, because I am undersupplied (a nicer way of saying inadequate), I need even more than 10,000 IU. Doc wants to kick start my vitamin D to 50,000 IU on top of the regular calcium and vitamin D supplements I already take in addition to receiving a bone mineral density test.

“Bone density test?” I ask sullenly. As much fun as it sounds like, I really want to avoid being scrutinized any more by this doctor, especially with a test. He wants to look at my bones and make sure my bones are not breaking down from the lack of vitamin D. The bone mineral density test is a painless procedure similar to having a standard X-ray. It takes about 15 minutes and the radiologist can tell if you have any fractures, cancers, infections and other abnormalities. I agree to have the test with the rationale that one more painless probing will not be a big deal, right?

Turns out, my bones are normal and doc assures my new regimen will take care of my vitamin D deficiency. Now, I just have to accept the fact my deficiency does not mean I have a shortcoming or weakness, but rather I need to take an extra step to maintain my important levels of vitamin D. That’s okay with me because now I can justify eating that extra bowl of ice cream. I’ll just tell my doctor, “It’s made with vitamin-D fortified milk and I must care for my deficiency”.

To find out if you may be part of the vitamin D deficient club like me, do not wait around to see symptoms (i.e., rickets, bone disease, etc.). It will be too late. Find out early by asking your doctor to measure your 25(OH)D levels. It’s a simple blood test.

For more information about vitamin D, here are some good resources:

National Institutes of Health Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin D

References:

"Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin D." National Institutes of Health. 09 September 2008. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. 22 Sep 2008

Gruss, Teri Lee. "Are You Vitamin D Deficient?." Natural News. 04 June 2008. 22 Sep 2008

Munir, Jawad and Birge, Stanley. "Vitamin D Deficiency in Pre- and Postmenopausal Women." Menopause Management 17, no. 5 September/October 2008 10-20. 22 Sep 2008.

Schaffer, Amanda. "What’s the Story on Vitamin D?." Slate Magazine 24 August 2004 22 Sep 2008

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