We have been told time and time again to take our vitamins – but aside from promoting general health, there are a few key reasons why we should pay special attention to specific nutrients we likely are not getting enough of. Vitamin D is one of those nutrients, particularly because the most effective way of getting it into our bodies is through sunlight and frequent outdoor activity – something a global pandemic and long winter season may interfere with.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is mostly known for its role in bone health, as it aids in the absorption of calcium. But over time, vitamin D – or more specifically, a vitamin D deficiency – has been consistently linked to several chronic illnesses, including:
Where Do We Get Our Vitamin D?
Our body creates its own vitamin D through exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Most children and adults absorb enough vitamin D through everyday exposure during the late spring and summer months to avoid serious health risks. There are no specific guidelines for how long one should stay out in the sun, as vitamin D production depends on genetic factors and skin tone, and clothing.
On the other hand, it can cause damage to the skin and raises the risk of melanoma. Sunscreen reduces UV light absorption and thereby negatively affects vitamin D production, but only if used rigorously. Spending most of those months indoors – even by a window – cuts short the time we need to absorb the sun’s light and produce the stuff.
UVB rays do not travel well through glass, at least not enough to be absorbed by the skin. These are the rays that also cause sunburns. UVA rays travel through glass and do not cause sunburns but do not help us produce vitamin D either. They can also damage your skin in other ways through excessive exposure.
An alternative means of getting vitamin D is through food. Natural sources of vitamin D include oily fish and eggs and fortified foods such as milk, non-dairy milk, and breakfast cereals. Tanning beds, UV lamps, and vitamin D supplements are some other vitamin D sources during the winter months or in cases where people struggle to make the time to be outdoors often enough.
How Does Vitamin D Deficiency Affect Chronic Back Pain?
The research on vitamin D and back pain is supported by evidence that supplementation can help individuals with a vitamin D deficiency promote better bone health and a stronger immune system. Furthermore, those susceptible to low and dark moods during the winter months may be susceptible to seasonal depression, which can be improved through vitamin D supplementation.
Depression, more than just a psychological condition, affects how the body processes and responds to pain, and alleviating depressive symptoms may help combat chronic pain. Another potential reason why vitamin D might impact back pain is post-exercise soreness. Vitamin D may help reduce and alleviate soreness in the muscles after training, helping further reduce an existing chronic pain conditions. Yet outside of these individual instances, vitamin D’s evidence as a supplement specifically for back pain is not very strong.
If any of these issues – poor immune health, poor bone health, and low mood, all exacerbated by low vitamin D levels – might be addressed through supplementation, then you may find yourself feeling a little better when taking vitamin D or when spending more time outdoors and eating more foods with high vitamin D levels. However, that does not mean that an increase in vitamin D intake is sure to alleviate chronic back pain or pain of any sort.
Does Taking Vitamin D Really Help?
It is difficult to promote or wholly write off supplementation for something as complex and widespread as chronic back pain, a condition with a long list of potential causes. Bone health, inflammation, injury, and infection are just some of the common reasons for chronic back pain, and the degree to which vitamin D might help depends on many other health factors.
However, vitamin D supplementation is also rather a low risk. On the odd chance that you may take too many supplements or are already taking in more than enough vitamin D, as is through your activity and nutrition, your first step before considering supplementation should be a simple blood test.
Your doctor can administer and interpret this test for you to determine whether your vitamin D levels are normal or below average. Based on these results, your doctor will also be able to help recommend a specific daily dosage to help you make up for the vitamin D you are missing (or save you a lot of money on supplements that would not make a large difference in your overall health and wellbeing).
Recommended daily levels depend on a person’s size and age, and intake levels (supplementation) depends on what levels of vitamin D a person is already developing through sunlight exposure and diet. The general recommended dietary dosage, regardless of these factors, is 600 IUs. Those living in very sunny or tropical places might need less or no supplementation. Those living closer to the Arctic circle would need much more.
What Are the Downsides to Vitamin D Supplementation?
Vitamin D downsides usually only start to appear once a person has an elevated vitamin D level in their blood. Doctors consider 20 nanograms of vitamin D per milliliter of blood to be healthy, and most side effects only occur at upwards of 50 nanograms.
However, it takes up to 200 or more nanograms per milliliter to develop signs of toxicity. To reach this level, a person would have to consume well over 10,000 IU (International Units) of Vitamin D per day. Once enough vitamin D has entered the bloodstream, common side effects can include kidney damage, excess calcium in the blood (causing a long list of problems), dehydration, and brittle bones.
If you are worried about your vitamin D deficiency, consult a doctor and get a blood test. Stop supplementing vitamin D if you are suddenly experiencing adverse effects and visit a medical professional immediately.