If you're feeling blissfully happy to see the face of the sun after what seemed like a century of grey skies this winter, your body may need those glorious beams more than you've understood — there's been a recent widespread rise in vitamin D deficiency. More than one billion people worldwide are believed to be suffering from a lack of vitamin D. As an Australian raised to be aware of the dangers of the sun — since two-thirds of all Australians will get skin cancer in their lifetime, a number that includes several family members — I've long regarded the day star with suspicion. But it turns out that when it comes to bodily health, a little sun does, in fact, go a long way.
How exactly does going out into the sun help you absorb a vitamin, you ask? Exposure to UVB sunlight (what's called "dermal synthesis" by scientists) prompts the skin to produce vitamin D photochemically — so calling it a "vitamin" is a misnomer. Really, vitamin D is a hormone, and while we can ingest one particular form of the vitamin — D3, which we find in food like fatty fish and eggs —most mammals get the bulk of their vitamin D from exposure to certain wavelengths of light. (Dogs and cats get theirs by laying in the sun; they then lick themselves to pick up the vitamin D in their sweat.)
Vitamin D is key for a health lifestyle; it is often linked to a healthy immune system and strong bones. There's also a lot of active research on whether it can help sufferers of multiple sclerosis, and what role it might play in reducing the risk of certain cancers. Check the symptoms and your risk factors, and book an appointment with a GP if you think you're at risk — it's really easy for them to test your vitamin D levels (even if you have no symptoms).
Who's At Risk For Vitamin D Deficiency?
Some people are more at risk of suffering a Vitamin D deficiency than others. For instance, folks who have minimal exposure to sunlight are at the biggest risk — and that applies whether you spend a lot of time indoors, have been housebound due to illness, or cover your body for religious or cultural reasons when outside. People with darker skin also have a higher risk of Vitamin D deficiency, purely because the higher levels of melanin in their skin reduce vitamin D production.
Other risk factors include being over 50, being obese, or having a gastrointestinal disorder like IBS or celiac disease that may make it harder for your body to absorb the hormone. But the clearest way to tell if you're suffering from a deficiency is to check for these five symptoms.
Sign 1: Head-Sweats
Dr. Michael Holick, who's given numerous interviews about the signs of vitamin D deficiency to places like the Huffington Post, always points to a very particular symptom that marks those who don't get enough of the vitamin: head sweats. Expelling a great deal of sweat from your noggin is, apparently, a classic sign that you need to up your D levels.
Sign 2: Consistent Low Mood
There's strong evidence linking low vitamin D levels with seasonal affective disorder, a mood disorder that affects people during cold and dark seasons, and produces despondency, lethargy and anxiety. That's why a lot of sufferers of SAD, as it's (poignantly) called, are offered "SAD lamps," which simulate the affects of sunlight on the skin, as a treatment. Low mood is consequently a pretty logical offshoot of vitamin D deficiency.
Sign 3: Aching Or Painful Bones
If you suffer from chronic pain, vitamin D supplements may be offered as a possible way of dealing with it. If you have serious vitamin D deficiency, you may suffer aches in the joints and throughout your bones, because of the link between vitamin D and healthy bone growth. However, this is a symptom of a pretty serious deficiency, so don't think that jumping in the sunlight for a moment will help every time your knee gives you a twinge.
Sign 4: Tiredness
This is one of the most common symptoms of a mild vitamin D deficiency, alongside low mood. Vitamin D has been shown to boost our energy levels and increase our muscle functions, so it's not surprising that low levels will cause a sudden desire to stay snoozing on the couch all day.
Sign 5: Frequent Respiratory Infections
If you've been getting repeated respiratory infections all winter, a lack of vitamin D may be the source of your problem. The Vitamin D Council, a source of information and science about the hormone, says that vitamin D has plays two roles in the fight against respiratory disease: reducing inflammation and boosting the cells within the immune system. Lower levels of vitamin D will likely leave you vulnerable to more frequent and more intense infections.
What Can I Do If I Think I Have A Vitamin D Deficiency?
Don't just run to a health food store and stock up on all the vitamin D supplements you can find; there is such a thing as vitamin D toxicity, or overdose, and you can run the risk of it if you try to self-medicate your deficiency. Instead, go to your doctor, and get tested; they'll likely outline a treatment plan involving your diet and 15-30 minutes of sunblock-free exposure to the sunshine, every day. As many as three-quarters of Americans have vitamin D deficiency, so go on — get tested and avoid some serious problems in the future.
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