Emerging studies have shown the positive impact of Vitamin D and its potential for treating and preventing notable health-related issues.
Vitamin D, also known as calciferol, is a multifunction vitamin that is naturally photosynthesized by the body and is present in select foods. It is a common nutritional supplement that works in tandem with other bodily functions to boost structural integrity in bones, enhance immune system response and benefit other important bodily functions.
According to the CDC, Vitamin D strengthens bone structures by regulating calcium levels in blood serum, which is the fluid portion of the blood when clotting factors are not present. The body needs calcium for a wide array of functions, such as musculoskeletal movement, conduction of nerve impulses and bone integrity.
Unlike calcium supplements, which are not absorbed directly by the bones, Vitamin D fortifies the calcium in bones. In addition to its applications to skeletal health, Vitamin D also plays a role in muscle health and immunology which are being studied today. Studies have also shown that Vitamin D can potentially help in reducing microbial infections.
One of Vitamin D’s most well-known functions in the human body is to prevent rickets, a bone-related disease in which bone structures soften and weaken, causing pain and loss of structural integrity in the skeletal system. Because this is especially prevalent in child development, the CDC recommends children from ages 0 to 24 months take a specific dosage of Vitamin D: 400 IU (International Units) a day for children 0 to 12 months, and 600 IU for children 12 to 24 months old. Although it is rarer, adults can also experience ‘soft bones’ caused by Vitamin D and calcium deficiency, known instead as osteomalacia.
For health purposes, Vitamin D is used most widely as a dietary supplement, as it is not very common in naturally-occurring foods. The greatest source of Vitamin D to humans is exposure to sunlight — five to 10 minutes of which has the potential to deliver a substantial 3,000 IU of Vitamin D to the body via photosynthetic conversion.
As a result, trends of Vitamin D deficiency in population health are often related in part to inadequate exposure to sunlight. Due to varying geographical and demographical factors, populations are disproportionately affected by Vitamin D deficiency as a result of unequal exposure to sunlight. Certain demographics are unequally affected due to cultural practices, phenotype and geographic location.
However, populations located in areas of high exposure to sunlight, such as Africa and the Middle East, were found to have higher percentages of Vitamin D deficient individuals as compared to populations located in more temperate climates. A literature review published by the South African Medical Journal found significantly higher rates of Vitamin D deficiency among individuals living in Africa and the Middle East. 83% of pregnant women in Nigeria were reported to be deficient, and 59% of children aged 4 to 15 were found to be lacking in Vitamin D in Saudi Arabia, among other statistics. The findings of this study suggested that these trends were associated with diet, indoor lifestyles and cultural clothing that protected much of the skin against the harsh sunlight and intense heat that characterize these regions.
Vitamin D deficiency was also found to be tied to race. A 2014 study led by Dr. Glen B. Taksler, PhD, analyzed the relationship between race and wintertime Vitamin D deficiency, concluding that populations with darker skin color were more likely to experience Vitamin D deficiency, with 65.4% of non-Hispanic Blacks having Vitamin D deficiency compared to 28.9% of Hispanics and 14% of non-Hispanic Whites. Dark skin complexions form a natural barrier against sunlight, and have been found to contribute to inherent levels of Vitamin D deficiency in minority populations.
In recent years, researchers have also been examining the potential for Vitamin D as a therapeutic agent for health-related issues apart from skeletal health. Research studies have found that Vitamin D supplementation (800 IU daily) over a 12-month period seemed to strengthen cognitive ability in older patients, and reduce the appearance of amyloid beta-related biomarkers in geriatric patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. The presence of these biomarkers traditionally indicated the development of Alzheimer’s Disease in older adults. The study on Alzheimer’s Disease found evidence suggesting decreased biomarker levels when exposed to Vitamin D supplementation, although longer trials are needed in order to draw stronger conclusions.
Researchers are also studying Vitamin D’s relationship with increased immune responses in the human body, which is opening up new avenues for research and clinical trials. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many researchers have made hypotheses regarding the vitality of using Vitamin D supplements as part of the arsenal against COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.
A randomized placebo-controlled study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that Vitamin D supplementation may have the potential to reduce the effects of influenza A in children, and suppress asthma attacks without new onsets of asthma in clinically-diagnosed patients. Vitamin D has also been shown to inhibit pneumococcal, meningococcal and group A streptococcal diseases, among others.
As these diseases are all respiratory in nature similar to COVID-19, researchers have begun hypothesizing about using Vitamin D in the current battle against COVID-19. Although no lengthy clinical studies have been conducted in relation to COVID-19, Vitamin D’s anti inflammatory properties are predicted to reduce severe inflammation in COVID-19 patients, which may reduce respiratory failure.
Dubbed the “sunshine vitamin,” Vitamin D governs many bodily functions, from bone density to cognitive function. More relevantly, the implications of previous and ongoing research in how Vitamin D can be used to fight respiratory illnesses are substantial, and may even provide us with an upper hand against the current COVID-19 pandemic in the near future.