Strengthen Your Viral Defenses with Vitamin D

With so much concern about getting sick these days, the  good news is that we all can do a lot more to fortify our immune systems to help keep "bugs" at bay, namely: trading processed foods for healthy, whole foods; cutting sugar to the bone; getting plenty of sleep; practicing meditation and relaxation techniques; and moving as much as possible (without over-doing it) throughout the day. But here’s one more essential element to add to your anti-viral arsenal – vitamin D.

Though it’s not a magic bullet, readily available vitamin D may offer potentially life-saving support to your immune system and helping to prevent the potentially lethal ‘cytokine storm,’ in which a haywire inflammatory system goes into over-drive, damaging vital organs.

As we went through the tumultuous time of COVID-19, researchers found connections between vitamin D levels and negative COVID-19 outcomes, including a statistical analysis of patient data from hospitals across Asia, Europe, the UK and US, that found a strong correlation between low vitamin D levels and hyperactive immune responses. So, what’s the take-away? Don’t fall short. In my opinion, optimizing vitamin D levels is always a wise way to go. Doing so is simple, low-risk, non-pharmaceutical way to quickly help boost your defenses. Here’s why I take it every day and advise my patients to do so as well – now more than ever, pandemic or not:

Immunity, and hundreds of other functions, D-pend on vitamin D.

Though most of us think of vitamin D as, well, a vitamin, it’s actually a steroid with hormone-like traits. It helps regulate the functions of hundreds of genes and assists with the production of hundreds more enzymes and other proteins that are crucial for maintaining health. In addition to supporting the immune system’s defenses against COVID-19 and other infections, it also helps protect against cancer and other diseases, improves our cells’ sensitivity to insulin, enhances muscle strength and builds bones.

You are very likely vitamin D deficient.

These days, vitamin D deficiency is incredibly common. Worldwide, it’s estimated that roughly a billion people are deficient, including an estimated 42% of the US population. But what accounts for the shortfall we’re seeing these days? A few of the most common factors include:

  1. Your indoor lifestyle: Most of our natural vitamin D is produced when the skin is exposed to UV rays from the sun. We only need a moderate dose of sunlight (no burning!) to synthesize vitamin D, but if you work indoors all day, and/or completely cover yourself in sunscreen or ‘protective’ clothing the second you step outside, you won’t get enough. Likely, your vitamin D levels will be very, very low.
  2. Your location: Because sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere in such short supply for 4 – 6 months (or more) of the year, so is vitamin D.
  3. Your skin tone: Darker-skinned people need roughly 3 -5 times more sun exposure to get the same amount of vitamin D as those with lighter complexions.
  4. Your age: The over 50+ set is more vulnerable to D-ficiency due to aging skin’s reduced ability to produce vitamin D.
  5. Your weight: Excess fat impedes the body’s ability to produce vitamin D.
  6. Your poor gut health and/or your gastric bypass: Either condition can prevent optimal absorption of vitamin D.

In light of these all-too-common factors, it’s easy to see how so many people in the US (and around the world), may be vulnerable to vitamin D deficiencies.

Are your D’s deficient, normal or optimal?

I usually advise readers to have their primary care doc test their D levels once or twice a year. But, another way to find out if you’re deficient is by taking one of the widely available DIY tests from ZTR Laboratories, Everlywell, and Vitamin D Council, or by going through one of the more highly rated testing companies online or at the local drug store. For the purchase price ($50 -150+), some testing companies will just spit out a number, some will provide a more in-depth interpretation of the results, so read up on what’s included before purchasing and consider sharing the results with your doctor.

Most general practitioners look for an ‘adequate’ reading of a serum 25-OH vitamin D level greater than 20 ng/ml. But you should be shooting for vitamin D levels at least in the 50 to 70 ng/ml range, the so-called ‘normal’ or ‘adequate’ range. But during a pandemic, what you really want is to get your levels into the optimal range which I, and most of my Functional Medicine colleagues, agree is a number closer to 80 ng/ml.

Fine tune your vitamin D levels.

If you have chronic health issues, like diabetes, cancer or an autoimmune disease, your optimal levels may be closer to the 80 to 100 mg/ml range. To achieve it, I recommend developing a supplementation plan with your doctor that’s specific to your situation. Even if you’re not a ‘special case,’ keep these guidelines in mind when you’re talking D with your doctor:

  • If your levels are above 45 ng/ml and for general maintenance: I recommend 2,000-4,000 IU daily, adjusting for age, weight, how much time you spend outside, where you live, etc.
  • If your levels are in the too low 35-45 ng/ml range: Boost levels with 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 a day for 3 months under a doctor’s supervision, and then recheck your blood levels and adjust accordingly.
  • If your levels are less than 35 ng/ml: Boost levels with up to 10,000 IU of vitamin D3 a day under a doctor’s supervision – and then be sure to have your blood levels re-checked after 3 months. Be advised it can take up to 6 months to fully optimize vitamin D levels, after which time you can drop down to a maintenance dose of 2,000 – 4,000 IU a day.

D-ficient no more – try these simple solutions.

Bottom line: vitamin D is essential for good health, pandemic or not, so it’s always important to know where you stand and to optimize your levels. To get your fill, take the following steps:

  • Eat your Ds. A mere 10% of your vitamin D comes from diet, so you can’t nearly get enough from food alone. But to get that precious percentage, be sure to incorporate vitamin D-rich foods in your diet, including fatty wild fish like mackerel, salmon, halibut, tuna, sardines and herring; organic, grass fed eggs; raw and dried shitake mushrooms.
  • Supplement with Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), which is the type of D your body produces in response to sun exposure. Vitamin D2 is not, so steer clear. Start with about 2,000 IUs of D3 with a meal that includes plenty of healthy fats to help boost efficacy, as vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and needs fats to be absorbed.
  • Expose your skin to the sun, responsibly of course. Roughly 50 -90% of vitamin D is produced by exposing the skin to the sun, so even a short session of just 15 minutes a day at midday can help boost levels. To keep yourself honest and burn-free, add an app to your phone.
  • Know if you’re doing too much of a good thing, as in, too much vitamin D, by keeping an eye out for symptoms like a metallic taste; increased thirst; itchy skin; muscle aches and pains; urinary frequency; nausea, diarrhea and/or constipation – all clues that your D3 dose may be too high.

Stay safe, healthy and well!

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