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How to Recognize a Vitamin D Deficiency

Your body makes your own vitamin D and uses it to regulate other bodily functions. One of those functions is to regulate your body’s calcium balance, which is necessary for proper mineralization of your bones. Your body is programmed to make and store vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight. However, sometimes people find it difficult to get their daily dose of summer sunshine, which leads to a decreased production of vitamin D.

Symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency

In today’s modern world, a lot of people spend a great deal of time working indoors, where they have no exposure to summer sunshine. When you don’t get enough vitamin D, you may notice symptoms, including bone pain and muscle weakness. Those symptoms usually are subtle, though, and you may not notice them until the vitamin deficiency becomes more severe.

Reasons you may not make enough vitamin D

The reasons you may not get enough sunlight include

  • You live in a smog-filled city. If you live in a city that has a lot of air pollution, sunlight may be partially blocked.

  • You live in a Northern latitude. If you live in the North, the sun’s rays are less direct and summertime is shorter. You have less time to build up your vitamin D stores for the winter.

  • You live in a nursing home or you’re housebound. If you stay indoors — and this includes not only the elderly and infirm but also young, healthy people who simply work and play indoors most of the day — you limit your exposure to sunlight.

  • You cover up. You hear a lot of health messages about the importance of using sunscreen to prevent skin cancer. But covering up with sunscreen and clothing has a downside — it may prevent you from getting enough sunlight to produce the amount of vitamin D you need to stay healthy.

  • You have dark skin. If you’re Caucasian, you need about 5 to 30 minutes of direct summer sun on your hands and face at least twice a week between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the sun’s rays are most direct.

    People with dark skin may need even more sun exposure (though precise guidelines aren’t available). So they’re at an even greater risk of not making enough vitamin D when they encounter the preceding conditions that limit their sunlight exposure. (Even so, African-Americans have lower rates of bone fracture from osteoporosis when compared with Caucasians.)

  • You’re growing older. As you age, your body’s ability to produce vitamin D diminishes. People over the age of 50 aren’t as efficient at producing vitamin D in their skin, and the kidneys are less efficient at converting vitamin D to its hormone form.

  • You’re breastfeeding without a vitamin D supplement. Babies who are breastfed and don’t receive a vitamin D supplement may be at increased risk for a deficiency, especially if they have limited exposure to sunshine, wear sunscreen when they’re outdoors, or are always covered up with clothing.

Risks associated with vitamin D deficiency

  • Fat malabsorption: Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that it requires a certain amount of fat in your gastrointestinal system in order to be absorbed. If you have certain conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, liver disease, or cystic fibrosis, difficulties absorbing dietary fat may limit your body’s ability to absorb vitamin D, too.

  • Obesity or gastric bypass surgery: If your Body Mass Index (BMI) is greater than or equal to 30, the extra fat layer under your skin may hinder release of vitamin D from your skin into the rest of your body. If you’re obese and have gastric bypass surgery, the surgery bypasses the upper portion of the small intestine, which is where vitamin D is absorbed. This may lead to vitamin D insufficiency.

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