Vitamin D Deficiency: Am I At Risk?
Karla Robinson, MD
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin necessary for maintaining normal calcium and phosphorus levels in the body. It is important in the body’s calcium absorption which is useful in forming and maintaining strong bones. In children suffering from vitamin D deficiency, growing bones are not formed properly often leading to skeletal deformities.
It is well known that vitamin D plays many roles in the body including bone health and calcium regulation. However, many other functions of vitamin D are also being investigated as its deficiency has now been linked to many body systems including the cardiovascular system, immune system, and the neuromuscular system. Normal vitamin D levels are thought to be helpful in protection against high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers, multiple sclerosis, and other autoimmune diseases. Statistics on the rates of vitamin D deficiency in African American women vary widely with reports ranging from 42% to over 80%. Unfortunately, many women may be suffering from a deficiency in this important vitamin without even knowing it.
Vitamin D is naturally made by the body in the skin as a result of exposure to sunlight. It can also be found in a few dietary sources. The highest amounts can be found in fish, eggs, and fortified foods such as milk, orange juice, and some cereals. Those with inadequate dietary intake and limited outdoor exposure to the sun are at increased risk for vitamin D deficiency. Additionally, African Americans are at increased risk for low vitamin D levels as those with darker skin tones need far greater amounts of sun exposure to produce enough vitamin D to maintain target levels. Because of the protective nature of the pigment of the skin, it is estimated that African Americans may need as much as three times as much sun as other groups with less skin pigment and lighter skin tones. Others at high risk for vitamin D deficiency include those that are obese, elderly, or may be suffering from kidney, liver, or intestinal disease that prevents the proper absorption and metabolism of vitamin D.
There are often no symptoms of vitamin D deficiency and as a result many people are unknowingly living with critically low levels. However, some adults do experience symptoms of decreased vitamin D levels such as fatigue, bone pain, and muscle weakness. Testing for vitamin D deficiency is recommended for anyone in high risk categories including African Americans. It can be easily performed in your primary physician’s office by a simple blood test.
There is still some debate on the level below which vitamin D is deficient. Most physicians agree that levels less than 20 to 30ng/ml are considered low. Treatment of vitamin D deficiency is dependent on the severity of the deficiency. It is generally recommended for most adults to consume at least 800 International Units (IU) of vitamin D daily to maintain normal levels. For those with documented deficiency, oral replacement of vitamin D may be required daily or weekly for at least six to eight weeks until levels in the target range are reached and maintained.
If you are not aware of your vitamin D level or if you have never been tested, discuss a vitamin D screening level with your physician. While a deficiency in this vitamin may be asymptomatic, the long-term consequences of low vitamin D can be numerous. Make a conscious effort to ensure that in addition to your bones being healthy, all other body systems are functioning appropriately by maintaining a normal vitamin D level.