With the cooler months just around the corner, now more than ever it's crucial to start thinking about what we can do to get (and stay) healthy and resilient. After all, as our grandmothers used to say, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’.
Personally, I hate getting sick. It always seems to be such a waste of time and energy that I could spend in a far more enjoyable or productive way! This is why I make sure I ramp up my immune support around this time of year, and continue right through till spring.
The good news is that we really do have plenty of options available to help us stay well - all we need is a little knowledge and insight about how our body functions. And one of the most effective ways to take a proactive approach to keeping our immune system strong is to consider the kinds of nutrients it needs to function at its best. After all, a structure is only as strong as the individual building blocks it is made of - and without the right ingredients, your body cannot make, maintain or repair all the amazing working parts within.
One nutrient that should take centre stage for the immune system is vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D is rather special, as we can obtain it from the action of sunshine on our skin, but it is also naturally found in certain foods, like egg yolks and oily fish. With regular sun exposure most people can store enough vitamin D within their body to last for 6 months. Vitamin D is also unusual in that it actually functions within the body more similarly to a hormone than a vitamin, and because of this it plays a vital role in many areas of the body.
Vitamin D & Immunity
I consider vitamin D to be one of the cornerstones of a healthy immune system. Not only does vitamin D support resilience to colds, flus and other infections, it also plays an important role in regulating the immune system (which is important if you suffer from an autoimmune disease, where the immune system has started to mistakenly attack healthy body tissues, or allergies).
Vitamin D & Bone Strength
Most of us are aware that vitamin D is needed to maintain strong, healthy bones, and avoiding deterioration of bone density (osteopaenia - bone thinning, and osteoporosis - brittle bones). Vitamin D is also vital for muscle strength – which means that if you do not have adequate levels it may make it easier to suffer a fall or injury. Sometimes, muscle cramps (which typically tend to be blamed on magnesium deficiency which is not always the case!) are linked to low vitamin D levels.
Vitamin D & Moods
Science is ever-evolving, and with that comes new investigations into many of the chronic conditions that are common in our society today. One of the areas that I am particularly excited to see is emerging research into the roles various foods and key nutrients play in mood disorders (known as 'nutritional psychiatry'). Interestingly, vitamin D has been shown to be of potential benefit for sufferers of mental health issues. Studies have found that the lower a person’s vitamin D levels, the more likely they were to suffer from depression or anxiety. The theory is that vitamin D may help protect and replenish certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that are involved in healthy, stable moods.
Vitamin D & Metabolism
Vitamin D is necessary for healthy blood sugar regulation – and it may even play a key role in your risk of developing metabolic syndrome (also known as ‘prediabetes’) or Type 2 Diabetes. People with low vitamin D also appear to be more at risk of developing high blood pressure or even cancer.
Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?
Vitamin D deficiency is actually far more common that you might think – even here in Queensland! In fact, studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency is common across the country, more so in winter and spring – even when people get what we would consider a decent amount of sunshine.
There are also various factors that can make it more difficult for you to get enough vitamin D. For instance:
- If you are working in an office or indoors most of the day, or wearing clothing that covers most of the body for extended periods of time
- Older people, and those in residential care are more at risk of deficiency
- Darker skinned individuals are more prone to deficiency, as they need more exposure to the sun to reach adequate levels
- People who suffer from conditions that impact the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (as vitamin D is also found in certain foods) can be at risk of deficiency. This may include coeliac disease, cystic fibrosis or inflammatory bowel conditions such as Crohn’s Disease.
- Infants that are breastfed from mothers with low vitamin D levels
- Low vitamin D levels are frequently found in people with obesity
As part of the Metabolic Balance program, we test every participant’s vitamin D as the first step in their journey (as personalised nutrition is based on each individual’s pathology results). I rarely see a vitamin D test that I would class as optimal – in fact, I actually get quite surprised when this happens! The overwhelming majority of people I’ve worked with have levels well below what I would consider ideal.
Are Your Levels ‘Normal’…Or ‘Optimal’?
I always recommend testing this particular nutrient, before popping a supplement. This way, we know just where things are at and the steps we need to take, rather than simply guessing.If you have had a vitamin D test recently, you may have been told that your levels are ‘fine’ (which is considered to over 50 nmol/L). The thing to remember with mainstream pathology testing is that ‘normal’ simply refers to what is common over a wide section of the population. It can be argued that as our population becomes unhealthier, with increasing rates of chronic conditions and obesity, that our ‘normal’ reference ranges are shifting towards a reflection of poorer overall health, and further away from 'optimal'.Ideally, I like to see vitamin D levels over 75nmol/L, preferably up near or over 100, particularly if the patient is suffering from frequent colds, flus or other infections, low bone density, are overweight, or have been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition or allergy. In fact, levels between 135 – 225 are considered normal in sunny countries.As with most nutrients, too much Vitamin D is not a good thing either – levels over 220nmol/L (or more commonly, over 500) can cause you to absorb too much calcium from the food you eat – which can be dangerous.