For most of the history of human existence, getting enough vitamin D was not a problem. That’s because we once spent much more time in the sun, and vitamin D is a nutrient that our body makes from sunlight.

Gradually, though, somewhere between the time when we stopped needing to hunt and gather our food and the present, when we stopped needing to go outside to do much of anything, vitamin D deficiency has become a real issue, and one that many researchers think is much more widespread than we might think.

Consider the fact that the vast majority of us now spend almost all day indoors, staring at a computer screen. Then add this compounding problem to the pile: we have now been hearing from dermatologists for decades that direct exposure to the sun is our enemy. That too much sunlight will cause everything from unsightly wrinkles and prematurely aged skin to life-threatening cancer. Sunscreen manufacturers have produced ever-more powerful products to block out even the most blasting of sunrays. And cosmetics makers have come up with increasingly convenient and convincing products for mimicking a “healthy tan.”

Now let us be clear: of course doctors are right, and of course too much UV exposure is hazardous. You should absolutely use a good, strong sunscreen when you plan to spend all day at the beach, or hiking a mountain, lounging around the pool, or any other place where you’re likely to get an intense, prolonged hit of super-sun. And you should absolutely avoid frying yourself in a tanning bed, as there is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that it strongly increases the risk of life-threatening skin cancers—likely without even boosting vitamin D levels. So the only “benefit” is cosmetic. A very small benefit indeed when your life is on the line, especially considering how believable many fake tan products are these days.

But now it’s time for us to present what is at stake. When levels of vitamin D drop too low, people are at an increased risk of many serious chronic health problems, like diabetes, osteoarthritis, and a wide range of common cancers. Recently, we’ve also learned that premature death due to heart disease and stroke also appear to be linked to vitamin D deficiency. In 2009, Finnish researchers announced their findings from a study conducted on more than 6,000 middle-aged men and women for over 20 years. They found that those with the lowest blood levels of vitamin D were 25 percent more likely to die of a heart attack, and twice as likely to die of a stroke (American Journal of Epidemiology, October 15, 2009).

Another study looked at vitamin D and race. Darker skinned people tend to have lower levels of vitamin D than people with pale skin. They also have a greater chance of dying from strokes and heart attacks. There are many possibilities for the disparity, but differences in vitamin D levels may be one contributing factor. In the study, those with the lowest vitamin D levels were 40 percent more likely to die over the next 12 years than people with the highest levels (Annals of Family Medicine, Jan/Feb, 2010).

Compare those alarming statistics to the benefits vitamin D can have. It can help boost the immune system, strengthen bones, and decrease the likelihood of getting everything from high blood pressure to diabetes to heart and kidney disease to a wide range of cancers, or from suffering a heart attack or stroke.

Yet despite all of its proven health benefits, and the risks associated with levels of vitamin D that are too low, some controversies around vitamin D deficiency still remain. Two questions stand out: who qualifies as “deficient”? And how should low vitamin D levels be boosted?

According to recent research, at least half of the U.S. adult population may have low blood levels of vitamin D (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Dec. 9, 2008). One analysis suggested that the number is closer to three out of every four (Archives of Internal Medicine, March 23, 2009).

Perhaps even more alarming, a study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that 9 percent of the 6,275 children tested were vitamin D deficient (online, Aug. 3, 2009). That translates to more than 7 million American children. And an even more astounding number of kids may have levels that, while not deficient, are still too low: roughly 50 million.

Low Vitamin D Linked to

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Colds and the flu
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Falls in the elderly
  • Heart disease
  • Infection
  • Hypertension
  • Kidney disease
  • Muscle pain
  • Osteoarthritis and osteoporosis
  • Rickets
  • Stroke

Publication Information

Published on: November 13th, 2019 | Last Updated: November 28th, 2019
Publisher: The People's Pharmacy

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