It’s easy to be complacent about vitamin D.
After all, vitamin D is produced in sunlight and it’s easy to assume that we are getting enough of it simply from our day-to-day activities.
But that’s not the case.
Instead, vitamin D deficiency is sometimes called a silent epidemic – because it is so common yet so many people are unaware of it.
You only have to look at the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency: fatigue, pain and muscle weakness, to see exactly why this is the case.
Those symptoms are all significant, but at the same time, they are pretty generic. There are many different conditions that could cause similar things.
In fact, many of us would associate those symptoms with trivial things, like not getting enough sleep, working too hard or sitting in an uncomfortable chair.
How Common is Vitamin D Deficiency?
Research into vitamin D has been increasing in recent years, as scientists and health professionals are beginning to understand the implications of this vitamin.
There is growing recognition that the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency has reached pandemic levels and this is augmented by the fact that few foods contain vitamin D naturally (1).
It was once believed that fortifying milk with vitamin D would be enough to prevent vitamin D deficiency, but current research suggests that this is far from the case (2).
There are many factors that can increase a person’s likelihood of being vitamin D deficient.
The reaction to produce vitamin D occurs on the skin, and this reaction is influenced by skin color.
People who have lighter skin tend to produce more vitamin D than people who have darker skin. This means that people with darker skin are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D than people with lighter skin (3).
Additionally, people who spend the majority of their daylight hours inside are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency.
By extension, people who experience significant issues with depression are also likely to struggle with vitamin D deficiency, as depression can often influence a person’s motivation to go outside or to interact with other people.
At the same time, the issue of vitamin D deficiency fatigue can often make people even less likely to head outside.
Location in the world is also significant, because sunlight is not spread out evenly, and countries that are further away from the equator tend to get less sunlight overhead than countries that are closer.
As people age vitamin D deficiency also become more likely. This happens because skin becomes thinner, which makes the reaction to produce vitamin D less efficient (4).
Obesity also plays a role in vitamin D, as fat cells are used to extract the vitamin from the blood. When people are obese, the level of vitamin in their blood tends to be low, contributing to vitamin D deficiency (5).
Western society tends to be largely indoor based. People tend to spend the majority of their days indoors, whether this is at work or at home.
In fact, for many people, getting outdoors for any length of time during the daylight hours is a rarity, except possibly at weekends.
Because of this people aren’t giving their bodies the exposure to the sun needed to produce vitamin D.
Furthermore, people who do tend to spend time outdoors normally stay covered up with sunblock, protecting themselves from ultraviolet rays and the risk of skin cancer.
Sunblock does certainly provide a level of protection, but it also blocks the light waves that are needed to create vitamin D.
This is concerning from the perspective of vitamin D, and it means that if you wear sunblock, the amount of time that you are out in the sun doesn’t do anything for your vitamin D levels.
For people with vitamin D deficiency, fatigue is the most common symptom.
The problem is, with so many different causes of fatigue, it is easy to overlook it, and assume that vitamin D is not the issue.
Many people don’t even realize they are having issues with fatigue, and simply think that they aren’t getting enough sleep.
Additionally, it often seems like simply being tired isn’t enough to see a doctor about, particularly when medical expenses can often be significant.
People often say that they feel like they ache, they are tired and run down, and may also feel slightly depressed.
It’s easy to brush off these symptoms, saying that they are the result of high levels of stress, of depression or of many other problems.
This may be the case, but all of these symptoms are also associated with vitamin D deficiency fatigue.
In fact, there is a tendency for physicians to assume that the symptoms are the result of depression, rather than vitamin D deficiency. This means that some people end up being prescribed antidepressants when in reality what they needed was an increased level of vitamin D.
Because the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are so vague, and can apply to many different problems, it can be very difficult to find out whether you actually are deficient in vitamin D.
Are You Deficient in Vitamin D?
In many ways, the biggest indication of vitamin D deficiency doesn’t come from the symptoms at all.
Instead, it comes from thinking about whether you are likely to be deficient.
For example, if you spend a lot of time indoors or if you are rarely outside from around 10am to 3pm, then there is a good chance that you are vitamin D deficient.
Likewise, many people find that they are vitamin D deficient in the winter months, as the sunlight then can make it hard to synthesize vitamin D, people tend to be bundled up when they go outside and people don’t tend to go outside as often.
If these factors apply to you, then there is a good chance that you are vitamin D deficient.
Your risk of being vitamin D deficient is also higher if you fall into any of the key risk groups.
In particular, people with darker skin (6), people who have reduced ability to absorb fat as the result of a medical condition (7) and the elderly (8) are at increased risk of being vitamin D deficient.
If you think vitamin D deficiency is likely, then it is really important to take the time and get it checked out.
Many physicians will test your vitamin D levels and the practice is also becoming more common over time.
If they won’t do this, there are also third party tests you can try.
However, because of the safety profile of vitamin D, many people choose to test whether they are deficient by simply taking vitamin D and seeing whether they feel better.
This approach can be effective, but it can also be challenging.
In particular, you don’t have any way of knowing whether you are taking enough vitamin D to lift you out of being deficient.
If at all possible, going through a physician for testing and for supplements is the safest way and regardless of what you choose, you should seek medical advice before taking the supplements.
While there isn’t anything specific to be concerned about with vitamin D supplements, seeking medical advice before taking supplements in general or making significant changes in your lifestyle is also a prudent practice.