COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have been hard on everyone, both mentally and physically. But did you know that one of the possible effects of being at home quarantined is that your vitamin D levels could be dropping?
Let’s take a look at why vitamin D is so essential to good health, how the lockdown orders could be negatively affecting your vitamin D levels, and what to do about it.
What is vitamin D and why is it important for your health?
Vitamin D is a nutrient you need to stay healthy. It is both a fat-soluble vitamin that we can get in our diets and a hormone our bodies make when our skin is exposed to sunlight. The latter is the primary natural source of vitamin D. When UV rays hit our skin, a chemical reaction occurs which produces vitamin D in our body.
Most people know about vitamin D as it relates to bone health. Vitamin D helps keep our bones strong, and without enough of it we can develop problems like rickets and osteoporosis.
But there’s more to vitamin D than just bone health. Vitamin D receptors are found in many different body tissues and organs, suggesting that it plays a wide range of roles throughout the body.
For example, we also need vitamin D to make our muscles move, to help our nerves carry messages, and to allow our immune system to fight off invading pathogens.
Here is a summary of some of the major benefits of vitamin D:
- Keeping our bones strong. Vitamin helps our body absorb calcium which we need to build strong bones.
- Supporting heart health. Vitamin D can help to keep your blood pressure normal, cholesterol low, and blood vessels healthy, reducing your risk of heart disease.
- Boosting mental health. Your brain requires vitamin D to function optimally, and vitamin D may help protect against conditions like depression.
- Regulating blood sugars. Vitamin D supports healthy blood sugar levels and may help protect against diabetes.
- Enhancing immunity. Our immune systems rely on vitamin D to function properly. It helps our bodies to fight off invaders like bacteria and viruses.[2,3]
Vitamin D deficiency
Low vitamin D levels are surprisingly common. Across the world, 1 billion people are deficient, and up to 50% of the global population is estimated to have insufficient levels.
That is something to take seriously, as low vitamin D levels have been linked to many different health concerns and conditions. When we don’t have enough vitamin D, we may be at higher risk for thinks like heart disease, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, depression, diabetes, infections, and even cancer or premature death.[1,2,4,5]
You want your vitamin D levels to be above 20 ng/mL, if not a bit higher. Anything below that is considered inadequate, and anything below 12 ng/mL is considered a severe vitamin D deficiency that can cause health concerns.
Signs and symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are generally very subtle, so you may not notice anything obvious. However, you might have mood changes, bone loss, muscle cramps or weakness, bone or joint pain, and fatigue.[3,4]
Low vitamin D levels can be caused by many different factors, including:
- Lack of outdoor sun exposure
- Having certain medical conditions
- Being overweight
- Living at high latitudes
- Being older in age
- Living in cloudy climates or polluted areas
- Taking certain medications
- Having darker skin pigmentation [1,3]
Vitamin D deficiency is especially common during winter months, when we have less sunlight each day and the winter conditions make for more clouds and rain.
Has COVID-19 quarantine affected your vitamin D levels?
Stay-at-home orders due to the global coronavirus pandemic have asked us to limit our outings outside of the house and to spend much of our time at home. For many of us, that has meant that we are spending more time indoors than usual.
Unfortunately, this may have had a large effect on vitamin D levels. When we spend less time outdoors, we are exposed to less natural sunlight. And if our skin isn’t exposed to the sun regularly to produce vitamin D, we might not make enough of it to keep up with the body’s demands. This can lead to insufficiency or deficiency.
On top of that, we have also found ourselves in quarantine during the winter months, where there is already less sun each day, more stormy weather blocking the sun, etc. For some people, these factors may have compounded and you may be more likely to be vitamin D deficient than under normal circumstances.
This is important to know, because vitamin D is essential for staying in good health overall. Plus, remember that vitamin D helps to strengthen immune function and may be particularly important in protecting against viral pathogens.[7,8]
Researchers believe that low vitamin D levels in wintertime may be associated with higher rates of infection and illness.[7,9] There are even several trials looking at whether vitamin D can help to protect or treat COVID-19 specifically, but according to the National Institutes of Health more data is needed before any recommendations can be made.[5,8]
Now more than ever, we want our immune systems to be strong and functioning at their best. So you may want to take a closer look at your vitamin D levels and correct a deficiency if you have one.
How to make sure you are getting enough vitamin D
If you are worried about your vitamin D levels, they can be assessed with a simple blood test ordered by your doctor. Discuss with your healthcare provider if you’d like to know where you stand.
If you are low in vitamin D and need to boost your levels, there are a couple of options for getting more vitamin D into your body:
1. Safe sun exposure. If you live in a climate where it is possible, getting enough vitamin D can be as easy as letting your skin see the sun a few minutes per day. About 15-20 minutes in the sun a few times a week is usually enough to make sufficient levels of vitamin D, although this does vary by age, geographic location, skin pigmentation, weight, and other factors.
2. Healthy foods. Fatty fish, fish liver oils, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks, and mushrooms all provide small amounts of vitamin D.[2,3] These can be good to add to your diet, but know that they don’t contain a whole lot of vitamin D; it isn’t possible to get all of your vitamin D from diet alone.
3. Supplements. The simplest way to boost your vitamin D levels is to take a supplement. Because everyone is different, it’s always best to consult with your doctor to determine the best dose for you.
Being on lockdown at home may have shifted your habits, and you may be seeing more time indoors than outdoors these days. One side effect of this new quarantine lifestyle may be that you are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency than normal.
It’s important to know whether or not you are low in vitamin D, as this nutrient is essential in keeping you in good health, boosting your immune function, strengthening your bones, and so much more.
Taking extra precautions with your vitamin D levels may be more important now more than ever, while we are stuck at home fighting a global pandemic.
Some practical tips for getting more vitamin D during quarantine include taking short walks throughout the day, sitting outside while eating lunch, finding a cozy spot in the sun while reading a book, or talking on the phone outside for a short break from work. Safe sun exposure is one of the best and most enjoyable ways to boost your vitamin D.
If getting out into the sun safely on a regular basis isn’t practical for you, then consider taking a supplement. Consult with your healthcare provider to find out what kind and how much to take.