The new ABCs of vitamin D

As links between deficiency of this “sunshine nutrient” and susceptibility to COVID-19 are unearthed, interest in Vitamin D is at an all-time high

Ask any schoolchild what vitamin D is and you’ll likely get a short story about how it’s the vitamin you get from the sun. And that’s quite true. While a lot of people would be hard pressed to name foods that contain vitamin D (especially compared to how just about anyone knows that vitamin C is found in citrus fruits and vitamin A is plentiful in carrots), it’s pretty common knowledge that our bodies can synthesize vitamin D with a bit of help from the sun.

Interestingly, it was actually known since quite a while ago that vitamin D, or rather lack of this nutrient, plays a role in determining how susceptible our bodies are to severe respiratory infections. Naturally, interest in this issue has spiked again amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, the biggest COVID-19 topic today is vaccination. In the meantime, as we wait for all the various inoculation initiatives to roll out, it’s definitely worth our time to relearn the basics of vitamin D knowledge and look at the answers to some of the most pressing questions about this “sunshine nutrient.” And on that note, let’s start with the elephant in the room:

Can vitamin D help combat COVID?
Well, yes and no. In short, vitamin D deficiency has not been shown to correlate with a higher probability of becoming infected with COVID-19. It does, however, affect the severity of the disease for those who’ve caught it. See, the major complication of COVID-19 is ARDS or acute respiratory distress syndrome, and one of the factors that can worsen this condition is a lack of vitamin D.

So, in a way, getting enough vitamin D is always a good idea, especially during a pandemic like this; but it provides more of a general-purpose benefit rather than the specific immunity you get from a vaccine.

What are the other benefits of vitamin D?
Bone health is a major benefit of sufficient vitamin D. To be exact, this nutrient enhances the absorption of calcium and phosphate, which helps protect and strengthen your bones, along with your teeth and muscles. Furthermore, vitamin D is also known to play an important role in regulating our moods and fight off depression. And as a final bonus, vitamin D also has an appetite-suppressing effect, making it essential for anybody looking to lose weight.

How much sun exposure do I need to get enough vitamin D?
Let’s go by the numbers for this one. For adults, the daily recommended intake of vitamin D is 600 IU (international units). Our bodies can synthesize about 200 IU in half an hour—or even just 15 minutes—of unprotected exposure to sunshine. Of course, staying under the sun for prolonged periods without adequate protection is definitely not a good idea. So, the usual recommendation is to get around 10-15 minutes of sun exposure a day for a hefty dose of vitamin D.

As a side note, high melanin levels are known to inhibit the production of vitamin D. So, fair-skinned people are generally more efficient when it comes to producing this nutrient.

“Getting enough vitamin D is always a good idea, especially during a pandemic like this; but it provides more of a general-purpose benefit rather than the specific immunity you get from a vaccine”

What kinds of food are good sources of vitamin D?
Besides getting enough sunshine, the second-best source of vitamin D is apparently fatty fish. Salmon is a great example, especially the wild-caught variety. But even a single serving of farmed salmon can give you about a third of the recommended daily intake. Herring is another good source, whether raw, canned, smoked or pickled—although you might want to consider the sodium content of the pickled kind. Sardines, halibut and mackerel are also good. Another cost-effective alternative is canned tuna: A 100-gram serving can also provide you with a third of the vitamin D you’d need in a day.

If you don’t really like fish all that much, don’t worry, because vitamin D can also be found in egg yolks and mushrooms. Please note, however, that the vitamin D content of eggs and mushrooms can vary quite a bit, from extremely high for eggs from pasture-raised chickens that spend a lot of time under the sun (especially those that are given vitamin D-enriched feed) to very low for commercial mushrooms grown in the dark.

Other than that, there’s also cod liver oil and fortified foods. The latter can include everything from cow’s or soy milk as well as orange juice, cereal and even oatmeal fortified with vitamin D. Basically, take a close look at the nutrition facts of these foods when grocery shopping.

 

Just like with any other nutrient, making sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D has always been important. And while it might not make you immune to the dreaded coronavirus, it might give you a fighting chance—touch on wood and all that—should the worst happen.

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