What do depression, diabetes, and osteoporosis all have in common?

More importantly, what are they all missing?

Insufficient vitamin D has been linked to all three of these conditions, among many others. While more research is necessary to fully understand how vitamin D works in our bodies, we know enough to know we should make sure we’re getting enough of it.

What is vitamin D and why do I need it?

You’ve probably heard of it referred to as the “sunshine vitamin,” and with good reason. There’s not a lot of vitamin D in the foods most of us eat, so we have to get the majority of the D we need either by absorbing sunlight or supplementing. Vitamin D is actually a hormone once it enters the body and is synthesized.

Like other hormones, D participates in a whole lot of bodily processes including muscle movement; it’s involved in carrying messages from the brain to the body and back again, and it’s important for fighting off bacteria and viruses. D helps us absorb calcium and maintain our bones, and it plays a role in reducing inflammation.

Vitamin D and menopause

Vitamin D is important for everyone, but women over 40 should be especially sure they’re getting enough. Critically, for women in midlife, vitamin D may also play a role in moderating several perimenopause and menopause symptoms and concerns.

ONE: DEPRESSION

Depression is a common and serious complaint among women in the menopause transition, and inadequate vitamin D may contribute to the problem. If you have fuzzy brain, poor memory, and concentration issues, vitamin D may also help you feel sharper and more focused.

It’s particularly important to get more D in the winter, when exposure to sunlight is less frequent and the sun is at the wrong angle to do us as much good.

TWO: OSTEOPOROSIS

The thinning and weakening of our bones is dangerous: as muscles weaken and our sense of balance is less reliable, we fall more often, and if bones are fragile from osteoporosis, that can result in a break.

According to Andrea Singer, MD, FACP, CCD, clinical director and trustee of the National Osteoporosis Foundation, “One in two women over age 50 will have a fracture caused by osteoporosis in her remaining lifetime.” Obviously, we need to do what we can to strengthen bones and reduce that number.

We normally hear of calcium being critical for maintaining bone, but actually we can’t absorb calcium well if we don’t have enough vitamin D. It’s important to take both to ensure the calcium is actually doing your body good.

tulip in the sun

THREE: HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE AND HEART DISEASE

At about 10 years post-menopause, a woman’s risk of heart disease equals that of a man’s of the same age. Yet, because we still think of heart disease as a men’s problem, many women are developing preventable heart problems.

Dr. Erin Michos of The Johns Hopkins Hospital believes a deficiency of vitamin D may play a role in the development of congestive heart failure. More research needs to be done to determine if increasing vitamin D actually protects against heart disease, but it’s certainly worth taking some tablets to decrease the risk.

So: take vitamin D to possibly decrease your chances of developing hypertension.

FOUR: DIABETES

As hormone levels decline, the risk of diabetes increases. While the exact mechanism that causes this is unknown, women seem to become more insulin resistant after menopause, resulting in less control over blood glucose levels.

Research seems to indicate that having enough vitamin D can help your body utilize insulin more effectively.

FIVE: CANCER

Because populations in sunny climates tend to have lower rates of incidence of certain kinds of cancers, researchers are looking to see if vitamin D might be responsible for the gap. No cause and effect has yet been established, though in studies on mice, it does appear that vitamin D may slow or prohibit the growth of cancerous cells and tumors.

SIX: AND THE REST

Irritable bowel syndrome. Multiple sclerosis. Obesity. Chronic fatigue. Autoimmune disorders.

It’s possible low levels of vitamin D are at least partly to blame for these problems. Does that mean increasing vitamin D could prevent or reverse them?

The jury’s out on that, but our sunshine vitamin is being studied for its impacts on all of these and more. Considering it may be a factor in a whole host of discomforts, it might be wise to make sure you’re getting enough.

How much is enough vitamin D?a daisy in sunlight

Dr. Michael Holick, an expert in vitamin D, wrote in a study for the New England Journal of Medicine that up to one billion people worldwide don’t get enough vitamin D. That’s a lot of people at risk of heart disease, diabetes, and bone fractures.

According to Holick, we need between 800 and 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D – preferably D3 – per day.

How do we get it?

Unfortunately, we don’t get enough from the foods we eat, and thanks to sunblock and our fascination with indoor entertainment, we rarely absorb enough from the sun.

Sunblock blocks up to 90 percent of the rays we need to get vitamin D. Glass filters out the beneficial UV rays, so sitting in the window while playing on your smart phone isn’t going to do it.

So, get out! Seriously, get outside, particularly if you live in a sunny climate and it’s summer, when the sun’s rays are at the right wavelength. For the fairer skinned, 10 to 15 minutes in the midday sun is probably enough. Those with darker skin may need considerably longer – up to six times as long, depending on skin pigmentation.

If you can’t get outside more, or if it’s winter and there’s no sun out there anyway, there are some foods that provide vitamin D. From Healthline: mostly fatty fish like salmon, herring, and sardines. Cod liver oil, if you can get it down, also has vitamin A and Omega 3s; tuna, oysters, shrimp, mushrooms and egg yolks.

Because D can be tough to get, many foods are fortified with it. Milk, milk substitutes like almond or soy milk, some cereals, some varieties of yogurt, and orange juice may contain vitamin D, but be sure to check the label.

Supplements are a good way to round out your D supply. Many experts believe D3 is more bioavailable (you absorb more of the nutrients) than D2 and therefore a better benefit for your buck.

How do I know if I need more?

Have you been outside today? Did you eat a mackerel? No? Then chances are you haven’t had enough D today. Most of us are chronically low.

Common signs of D-ficiency include…

  1. Getting sick often.
  2. Feeling fatigued.
  3. Pain, particularly in the back, legs, ribs, joints, and/or muscles.
  4. Depression
  5. Slow healing.
  6. Hair loss.

If you’re experiencing any of these, or even if you simply suspect you’re not getting enough vitamin D, ask your doctor to check your levels via a simple blood test.

If you’ve dealt with a vitamin D deficiency, what did you do about it? Did bumping up your level actually solve health problems, give you more energy, make you feel better? Please share with the community: leave us a comment below, or talk to us on our Facebook page or in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, our closed Facebook group.



Shannon Perry

Shannon is a celebrated author and global educator. Whether she’s interviewing a physician or producing a podcast, her appetite for research, facts, and truth culminates in credible health education and programming that women can rely on. An avid runner, cyclist, and climber, Shannon knows a thing or two about thriving in midlife and lives in Seattle with her cat, dog and boyfriend.


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