Vitamin D: it’s an essential part of a multi-vitamin or a supplement routine. Now, more than ever, the role of Vitamin D to strengthen and keep our immune systems running strong makes it a must-have.
You may have recently seen the study published a few weeks ago which found a connection between the pandemic and Vitamin D. Scientists have been struggling to identify connections between those people, populations, and geographical regions that are affected the most—and they seemed to have uncovered a connection between Vitamin D status.
The observational study, released by medRXiv and bioRxiv, has found Vitamin D deficiency to be a factor in the risk of complications and hospitalizations. This isn’t surprising to those of us who know how important Vitamin D is in decreasing risk of diseases, viruses, colds, depression, and even obesity—but the information gives us a plausible answer for why some locations are being affected more than others.
We know that Vitamin D deficiency has been labeled as a global epidemic and that 1 billion people all over the world are deficient. Vitamin D is integral to the immune system and endocrine system. It’s also needed for healthy bones, due to its regulatory oversight of the calcium and phosphorous balance within the body.
Vitamin D is synthesized in skin when UVB rays hit the skin—but the geography, intensity, availability, and pollution rate all impact how much UVB rays are coming through from the sun.
Vitamin D & Your Location on the Globe
When you think of location being a factor in a pandemic, it’s easy to overlook the geographical latitude and sun as contributing factors. It makes sense that areas of the world receive less UVB rays.
For instance, in all the seasons except the summer, areas of the world in latitudes above 37-40 degrees north or below 37-40 degrees south of the equator cannot make enough Vitamin D through sun exposure. There just isn’t enough UVB radiation shining down on the areas of the planet except at the height of summer. Even altitude, time of day, and clouds can impact how much UVB is available.
In the wintertime, people living in these locations will not be able to synthesize Vitamin D from sunlight, no matter how much “sunshine” they expose themselves to. It simply isn’t physically possible. This is one of the many reasons why we experience seasonality of flu viruses and colds peaking from October-April. If you aren’t consuming Vitamin D through vitamins, oily/fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, fortified cheese, milk, cereal, or juice, then your stores of Vitamin D will plummet during the winter months. This creates a perfect storm of people who have lowered Vitamin D status due to the wintertime and then have lowered immunity as they come into the spring months. Again, it’s one reason why flu season is still active even in the spring.
Pandemic Hot-Spots & UVB Availability
The areas of the world which are outside the zones that receive adequate UVB throughout the year include several of the hot spots that we are seeing—Italy, France, Sweden, China, South Korea, Iran, United Kingdom, New York, and Seattle. Europe and the mid-Northern half of the United States receive insufficient UVB for more than 6 months out of the year.
A small window below 40 degrees north latitude which encompasses most of Asia, the very bottom of France and Italy, most of China, and the lower portion of the United States receives insufficient UVB for at least 3-6 months of the year.
And, counterintuitive as it may be, Australia and the tip of Africa and South America also receive insufficient UVB for at least 3-6 months out of the year.
This predisposes populations living in these areas to already having some form of jeopardized immunity coming out of the winter and going into the spring—which correlated to the timeline of the spikes we have seen with this pandemic starting in February and beyond.
Skin Pigment is a Factor
If you aren’t familiar with Vitamin D or its deficiency, you may be puzzled why dark-skinned people (as are in some of these areas) would be Vitamin D deficient. The pigmentation of skin also impacts how much Vitamin D you’re likely to synthesize from sun exposure, and the darker the pigmentation, the less Vitamin D you will synthesize. Being of an ethnic descent which has darker pigmented skin and living in a sunny area–even getting sunshine every day–does not equal adequate Vitamin D synthesis.
Pollution & Vitamin D
Other than geographical location, pollution also plays a big part. The sun’s UVB rays can only be as helpful to the capacity that they are able to come down unfiltered to us. Obscured by pollution, we are only receiving a portion of what may already be insufficient rays. There have been some reports which linked high-pollution areas to some of the worst outbreaks (China, Lombardy, Italy, New York, etc.), adding to the perfect storm of Vitamin D deficiency.
There are, of course, other risk factors which have snowballed to create some of the worst effects of the pandemic. Polluted areas tend to be densely populated areas, which spreads viruses and diseases faster. Having sufficient Vitamin D isn’t the end-all-be-all in our current fight, but it’s definitely a contributing factor. It won't keep you from getting sick or reverse the course if you're already sick; but it has so many benefits for and beyond the immune system that if you weren't aware of it before, it should definitely be on your radar now. The observational data correlates that being Vitamin D deficient puts you at a 15.6% greater risk of complications from the pandemic.
How to Strengthen Your Immune System Right Now
Talk to your healthcare practitioner if you have any medical conditions or take any medications–Vitamin D is always best under the guidance of a doctor.
The simplest solution for ensuring you have sufficient Vitamin D levels is to take a Vitamin D supplement, either in a multi-vitamin or by itself with its cofactors (magnesium, Vitamin K2), and to also increase the amount of oily fish you eat. There are recommended daily allowances for Vitamin D (and vitamins are generally sold in these ranges), but you may require a different amount which only you and your doctor can determine.
You’ll need to have a Vitamin D blood test with your doctor to find out your true level and how much Vitamin D you will need to take to correct a severe deficiency. I have experienced a severe deficiency as low as 15 ng/ml which was corrected with the guidance of my doctor.
Do not megadose Vitamin D—but be aware it has always had the ability to strengthen our immune system, and it’s needed more than ever during this time.
Keeping up on your exercise, getting sunshine for the sheer beauty of it, staying connected to friends and family, eating well, and taking a daily vitamin are some of the best ways to come through this pandemic stronger than before.
Daneshkhah, Ali, et al. “The Possible Role of Vitamin D in Suppressing Cytokine Storm and Associated Mortality in COVID-19 Patients.” MedRxiv, 18 May 2020, doi:https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.08.20058578. Abstract available at: https://europepmc.org/article/ppr/ppr149846
Naeem, Zahid. “Vitamin d deficiency- an ignored epidemic.” International journal of health sciences vol. 4,1 (2010): V-VI.
Mendes, M.M., et al. “Vitamin D Status in the Tropics: Is Sunlight Exposure the Main Determinant?” Nutrition Bulletin, 11 Oct. 2018, doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/nbu.12349.
“Time for More Vitamin D.” Harvard Women's Health Watch. Harvard Health Publishing, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/time-for-more-vitamin-d.
“UVB Map of World.” Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, MSARD Journal, 28 Mar. 2017, https://www.msard-journal.com/article/S2211-0348(17)30066-4/abstract.
“Latitude and Vitamin D Production in the Skin.” Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Health Publishing, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/time-for-more-vitamin-d.