Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption which promotes healthy bones. Other roles for vitamin D are modulation of cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function, and reduction of inflammation.
Vitamin D is one of four fat-soluble vitamins. It is available from two natural sources, primarily from exposure to sunlight and also from a limited range of animal-based foods including sardines, salmon, mackerel, tuna, beef, liver, cheese and egg yolks.
It is added to some cereals, dairy and soy products and supplementation is also available in tablet, capsule, drops or liquid form.
Vitamin D deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency is recognised as a global problem, estimated to affect over a billion people worldwide. Osteoporosis Australia suggest that more than 30% of Australians have a mild, moderate or even severe deficiency.
According to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, vitamin D deficiency is more common in the winter months when people spend less time outdoors and wear more clothing.
There is an increasing number of medical conditions associated with low vitamin D status. Vitamin D deficiency has been implicated in osteoporosis, osteomalacia, (rickets) autoimmune disease, asthma, Cystic Fibrosis, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), cancer, skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, and dementia.
Who is at risk?
Ideally, we would all get enough vitamin D from sunshine and from daily consumption of two or more food sources, however not everyone is able to achieve this.
People with Coeliac Disease, Crohn’s disease or those who have had bariatric surgery may not be able to absorb enough fat-soluble vitamin D.
Those who avoid the sun out of concern about cancer, people who wear veils for cultural reasons, people with darker skin, workers or students who spend increased hours indoors, and people who generally live more sedentary lives, may not get enough sun exposure to provide the required vitamin D levels.
People who are hospitalised or in residential care are at risk, as are the elderly (particularly those over 70) as they typically have less sun exposure as well as a decreased ability to synthesise vitamin D from sun exposure.
Many studies have been published that show a significant reduction in the risk of hip fractures among those who have received treatment with a combination of vitamin D and calcium.
How do you know if you have vitamin D deficiency?
The early warning signs of vitamin D deficiency are quite vague, such as muscle aches and general weakness, so it’s difficult to detect through symptoms alone.
Osteoporosis Australia have published recommended sun exposure guidelines by location, so you can check to see if you are getting the recommended sun exposure. If you are concerned, see your doctor for a check-up. Vitamin D levels can be determined with a simple blood test.
Is vitamin D deficiency treatable?
Yes. If your levels are low, you may need supplementation to avoid future health issues. Supplementation needs to be tailored to suit the individual, depending on the severity of the deficiency.
Supplementation is considered harmless when the dosage is within the recommended guidelines. Higher dosages are often prescribed by a doctor if the deficiency is severe.
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