When is the last time you had your physician test you for vitamin deficiencies? If the answer is “never” or you don’t remember, you could be headed for trouble. Certain vitamin deficiencies have been linked with autoimmune disease.
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Vitamins are essential for daily functioning. They assist with cell and bone production and they help convert food into energy. They also play an important role with immune regulation and healing. Vitamin deficiencies interfere with the body’s ability to ward off infections and diseases. Eating a balanced diet is the best way of getting recommended daily allowances. However deficiencies can still occur.
The Role of Vitamin D
Until recently, Vitamin D was primarily recognized for promoting healthy teeth and bones. However research has shed light on its involvement with the immune system. In fact, Vitamin D receptors have been discovered on the surface of white blood cells. And white blood cells are key actors in the body’s immune system. Not surprisingly Vitamin D deficiencies can increase the incidence and severity of infections.
In the age of COVID-19, getting adequate amounts Vitamin D is important. Deficiencies in Vitamin D could potentially result in increased severity of COVID-19 symptoms. Vitamin D deficiency has also been implicated in the onset and worsening of autoimmune diseases. As many as 50% of lupus patients are severely deficient in Vitamin D. In addition diabetes mellitus, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis have been linked with Vitamin D deficiency.
Symptoms of a Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D deficiency is more common than you may realize. It’s estimated that over a billion people in the world have a Vitamin D deficiency. Many people are unaware they have a deficiency because either they don’t have symptoms or symptoms are easily attributed to something else. But if you experience muscle cramping, pain or weakness, bone pain or changes in mood, you may have a Vitamin D deficiency. Other symptoms include hair loss, impaired wound healing, fatigue and back pain.
Sources of Vitamin D
Known as the “sunshine vitamin”, Vitamin D is produced naturally when cholesterol stored in the sebaceous glands of the skin is exposed to the UVB rays of the sun.
Melanin, the natural pigment found in skin and hair, interferes with this process, making it more difficult for people with darker skin to absorb UVB rays. So if you have dark skin you’re at an even greater risk of having a Vitamin D deficiency.
Ten to 30 minutes of sun exposure a few times a week, particularly during midday, would be beneficial for people with lighter skin. People with darker skin should aim for at least 30 minutes of sun a few times a week. If spending more time outdoors isn’t possible, there are other alternatives.
Foods containing Vitamin D include egg yolks, fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna, cheese, egg yolks and fortified foods like cereals and yogurt.
If supplementation is necessary, the average person can get by with 600 to 800 IU daily. Taking up to 4,000 IU is within safe limits. However, if you’re concerned about a possible deficiency, it’s better to consult with your doctor than to blindly consume higher doses of Vitamin D as too much can be harmful.
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The Role of Calcium
Calcium is one of the most important minerals in the body. Not only is it necessary in order to maintain strong teeth and bones but the nervous system uses calcium to transmit signals throughout the body. In addition calcium is needed to help muscles contract, and the heart muscle is no exception. In fact the body will deplete the bones and teeth of calcium in order to provide calcium for the muscles. Deficiencies in calcium can lead to bone loss, broken bones and the development of osteoporosis. Deficiencies have also been associated with an increased risk of autoimmune disease.
Symptoms of a Calcium Deficiency
As with vitamin D, it’s not uncommon for individuals with a calcium deficiency to go without symptoms. Symptoms of a deficiency can include muscle cramping, a sensation of “pins and needles” in the hands and feet, fatigue, dry, itchy skin, brittle teeth, tooth decay and even depression.
Sources of Calcium
Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt contain the greatest amounts of calcium. One cup of milk contains 300 mg. However dairy has also been known for triggering inflammation in the body which could exacerbate autoimmune flare ups. Not to worry…there are many non-dairy sources with notable amounts of calcium. Soy milk with added calcium contains 300 mg. Sardines contain 325 mg. Vegetables like broccoli, dark green leafy vegetables, rhubarb, red beans and chickpeas are excellent sources of calcium as are white beans, almonds and figs. The recommended daily allowance for calcium is 1,000 mg for women aged 19 through 50. Diminishing estrogen levels in menopausal women result in greater bone loss so the recommended daily allowance increases to 1,200 mg daily for women over 50. Calcium intake greater than 2,000 mg daily can result in kidney stones and constipation. Iron supplements and certain medications interfere with the absorption of calcium. Your pharmacist can provide you with more information if needed.
Vitamin Deficiencies and Corticosteroids
Corticosteroids like Prednisone and Methylprednisolone have been known to suppress the production of calcium. Corticosteroids also interfere with vitamin D metabolism, resulting in severe deficiencies for some. This further inhibits the absorption of calcium. Patients who take corticosteroids are twice as likely to experience a severe vitamin D deficiency. It was once believed that only prolonged use of corticosteroids affected calcium and Vitamin D levels. This may be the case for some, particularly postmenopausal women. But for individuals who may be more sensitive to the effects of steroids or for those who have other underlying conditions, the rate at which bone loss occurs is fastest during the first 6 months.
Given the high rate of Vitamin D deficiency overall and the negative impact this can have on patients suffering from autoimmune diseases, it’s surprising that physicians who treat these patients don’t perform routine testing. That’s why it’s especially important to be proactive and request that your physician perform testing so you can at least see where you stand, especially if you’re experiencing symptoms.