What happens if your levels of vitamin D are low?
Vitamin D is sometimes known as the forgotten ‘neurosteroid’ and in fact, some people even classify this nutrient as a hormone that should give you a clue as to its importance! Although it’s usually known for its relationship with calcium (vitamin D is essential for healthy calcium absorption) as we shall discover, vitamin D is also crucial for many other bodily functions such as your immune system, mood, sleep and possibly even your digestion!
Unlike vitamin C, which must be obtained through your diet, your body is capable of synthesising vitamin D – there’s just one catch! Your body synthesises vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight, a scarce commodity at the best of times here in the UK, let alone in the depths of autumn! This means that many of us are going to be more susceptible to having low levels of vitamin D in the next few months but could this impact your skin? Let’s take a look at a few of the main symptoms of vitamin D deficiency to find out.
Poor immune function
This time of the year can be very trying for your immune system as it seems every bug and viral infection is out to get you - coughs, colds and flus seem to be lurking everywhere! Unfortunately, vitamin D is quite important when it comes to supporting your immune function – it’s even thought that healthy levels of vitamin D may help ward off colds and flus!1
When your levels of vitamin D are low, you may find that your immune system becomes more vulnerable to these types of infections. In fact, studies have found that those suffering from illnesses such as the common cold or a respiratory tract infections like bronchitis often display low levels of vitamin D2
While a weak immune system can influence your skin indirectly by upsetting your sleep patterns, it can also have a more direct impact. You see, your skin relies on a healthy immune system to help eliminate any bacteria or pathogens that permeate your epidermis and, if your immune function is sluggish, these bugs may linger which can result in a flare-up, especially if you suffer from a condition such as acne or eczema!
Inflammation can be a huge problem for your skin – not only is it a major trigger for acne breakouts and eczema flare-ups, even in healthy skin it can cause swelling and redness. Well, it turns out vitamin D is involved in decreasing inflammation too! More specifically, research has found that low levels of the inflammatory marker, C-reactive protein, are associated levels of vitamin D.3
Unfortunately, when your levels of vitamin D are low it can mean that you’re more prone to inflammation. Some studies have even found that sufferers with severe vitamin D deficiencies have higher levels of inflammatory markers which could potentially affect how their wounds heal.4 If your body isn’t able to repair any damage to your skin properly, this can have consequences, especially in cases of eczema!
This isn’t the only problem though; low levels of vitamin D have been linked to Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), an inflammatory condition which can inhibit your digestion and cause symptoms such as diarrhoea and bloating to manifest. It was found that IBD sufferers often exhibit low levels of vitamin D5 which makes sense given vitamin D’s influence on inflammatory markers.
Since your skin often relies on a healthy digestive system, this again can cause problems, especially if the nutrients from your food aren’t being absorbed properly or, in cases of constipation, if toxins and waste products are lingering in your body!
Do find that during the winter months you feel more sluggish and perpetually tired? As it turns out, low levels of vitamin D could again be responsible here. This is because the nutrient had been linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which can impact your mood and make you feel more run down during winter. It’s also possible that vitamin D might have an impact on your sleep patterns too, further exacerbating the issue.
If you’re feeling low and lacking in energy it can affect your skin in a number of ways – for a start, you might become more sedentary, which may impact your circulation. It’s also possible you might be more tempted by the allure of sugary foods, relying on them to temporarily boost your energy levels and, finally, if you are sleep deprived, you may find yourself more susceptible to stress – all of these factors can easily affect your skin!
Decreased insulin sensitivity
Did you know that vitamin D is needed for normal insulin secretion? Insulin is a very important hormone when it comes to regulating your blood sugar levels, preventing that dreaded sugar crash which can sap all your energy! Vitamin D is thought to help by improving insulin sensitivity, making it easier for the hormone to transport sugar, or glucose, out of your bloodstream, storing it for later use.
If your body becomes less sensitive to insulin, it can cause sugar to linger for longer in your bloodstream. This means you experience a great high followed by a more intense low that could have you reaching for a sugar snack. I’ve already spoken at length about the unhealthy relationship sugar can have with your skin but, if you suffer from acne, this can be a real problem!
Who’s vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency?
Okay, so vitamin D deficiency is quite common here in the UK thanks to our less than tropical climate. Winter in particular, can be a challenging as what little sun we are blessed with quickly disappears and most of the time we are going to work and coming home in darkness. However, there are certain groups of people that are more vulnerable than others, as I shall explain.
Over 50s – As you get older, your demand for vitamin D increases. Unfortunately, this increased demand often comes at a time when you’re not as able to synthesise vitamin D. It also doesn’t help that you are more likely to be sedentary or more prone to injury at this point.
Vegans & vegetarians – When the weather’s bad, you might be tempted to try and increase your intake of vitamin D by eating more vitamin d rich foods. Unfortunately, most foods that contain this nutrient are derived from animals and, although many foods are now fortified with vitamin D, if you’re vegan or vegetarian you could still be at risk of getting deficient.
Office workers – How many of you work in an office? The chances are that most of you have some type of job that requires you to spend most of your time inside, rather than outside. This means that, especially in winter, your chances of synthesising some vitamin D from the sun are particularly slim.
Those on certain types of medication – That’s right, the type of medication you are taking can affect your stores of vitamin D. Corticosteroids in particular can affect how your body metabolises vitamin D, so you may wish to speak to your doctor if you have any concerns.
Sufferers of digestive disorders – If you suffer from a digestive disorder like IBS or Crohn’s your body may struggle to absorb vitamin D properly, particularly if it’s coming from your diet. This can cause a vicious cycle as low vitamin D levels can sometimes contribute to inflammation, as I discussed earlier.
So, as you can see, quite a few of us might be more susceptible to having low levels of vitamin D which begs the question, what can you do to avoid becoming deficient?
How can I increase my intake of vitamin D?
There are plenty of ways you can go about increasing your intake of vitamin D but let’s start with the most basic.
Sunlight, as I’ve mentioned, is an essential source of vitamin D which is why you should try and capitalise on it as much as possible. Even in the midst of winter, it’s important you still try to spend some time outside whether it’s a brisk walk on your lunch break or, if you’re more active, a 5K run. Now I understand that the last thing you probably feel like doing is going outside when it’s freezing cold but just 10 minutes can make a real difference so ditch the car, wrap up warm and walk to the shops!
You could also try looking at your diet and incorporate more vitamin D-rich foods. Oily fish like salmon and sardines are good sources but, if you are vegan, you could try mushrooms or fortified foods like cereal and dairy-free milks.
However, Public Health England recently advised that during the winter months, we might want to consider a mild 400 IU (approximately 10mcg) vitamin D supplement.6 Generally this is enough, however, if you feel as though you are more at risk of a deficiency you could try a stronger supplement – it’s believed that anything up to 1000IU is safe to take. Just take care though, many of the supplements on high street shelves often count double or triple this amount and, as our Nutritionist Emma discusses her blog, ‘Are you getting too much vitamin D?’ over-supplementing can be just as dangerous as a deficiency.
If you’re looking to top up your vitamin D levels and fight fatigue, you could try our Balance Mineral Drink, which not only contains 5mcg of vitamin D, but also includes other essential nutrients such as magnesium, calcium and potassium! If you’re after something stronger though, your local health food store should be able to help you out.