Falling short on sunshine: vitamin D deficiency in the colder months

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      By Dr. Melanie Levesque

      With the winter season now underway, should we be concerned about getting enough vitamin D?

      Why is vitamin D important?

      Most of us are aware that it’s important to protect ourselves from too much sun exposure. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation can cause many adverse health issues, including eye diseases, skin cancers, and premature aging.

      What we talk about less frequently is how appropriate amounts of safe sun exposure can offer significant health benefits.

      Vitamin D, commonly known as the “sunshine” vitamin, is a fat-soluble secosteroid that helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus. Vitamin D helps maintain bone and dental health, regulates many different cellular functions, and can even enhance your mood. A long-term vitamin D deficiency, therefore, can prove dangerous to your health.

      Are you getting enough vitamin D?

      The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency depend on both the severity and the duration of the deficiency. Most patients with mild to moderate deficiency display no symptoms. Patients with severe deficiency, however, are at risk of experiencing reduced absorption of calcium and phosphorus.

      This can lead to demineralization of bones and osteomalacia—softening of the bones—in more prolonged cases. Symptoms such as pain and tenderness, skeletal fractures, muscle weakness, and difficulty walking may occur in more severe cases. In children, severe vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets, although this is uncommon in most developed countries.

      What is much more common in North America, however, is a subclinical vitamin D deficiency. This can lead to many adverse health effects for Canadians, including osteoporosis and an increased risk of fractures from falls in older adults.

      Are you at risk of vitamin D deficiency?

      There are many causes that contribute to vitamin D deficiency, such as reduced sun exposure, end-organ resistance to vitamin D, and decreased intake or absorption of vitamin D.

      Elderly people who spend most of their time indoors are at a much higher risk for a low serum vitamin D level. The cutaneous production of vitamin D naturally declines with age, especially in the northern latitudes.

      Other people with an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency include individuals with:

      • darker skin tones
      • an obese BMI (or higher)
      • osteoporosis or bone disease
      • limited effective sun exposure
      • a prescription for medication that accelerates the metabolism of vitamin D

      What to do if you’re vitamin D deficient?

      Identifying and treating vitamin D deficiency is critical to maintaining overall musculoskeletal health, but it also potentially impacts your extraskeletal health—such as the immune system and cardiovascular system.

      If you’re concerned about someone in your family’s vitamin D intake, or if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms outlined above, be sure to talk with your family physician or contact  at 604-670-2937. A doctor can help you identify your options and, if appropriate, order blood work to help measure your vitamin D serum level.

      And remember, if you’re worried about your vitamin D intake this winter, be sure to get outside and enjoy some sunshine whenever possible!

      Dr. Melanie Levesque is a Family Physician at the in Vancouver. She received her medical degree from Laval University and completed her residency training at UBC’s highly regarded St. Paul’s Hospital Program. She has a strong interest in emerging global health issues, sport medicine, urgent care, preventive medicine, and dermatology.