Why and how to increase your Vitamin D levels

According to a new study highlighted at the American Society of Clinical Oncology, 2021 virtual annual meeting, adequate Vitamin D levels can help with cancer survival.

In the study, which has been underway since 2006, researchers measured the Vitamin D levels of nearly 4,000 patients at the time of diagnosis of breast cancer, and their survival chances 10 years later.

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The study has provided evidence on the need to maintain adequate Vitamin D levels, especially among patients with advanced-stage disease and among Black women, who have a higher mortality rate than white women.

An earlier study had shown that people having inadequate levels of Vitamin D had a 31 per cent higher risk of colorectal cancer, while those with the lowest risk of colorectal cancer were people who had Vitamin D levels higher than the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) recommendations for sufficient concentrations.

Apart from being an important player in the fight against cancer, and Covid-19, as per some reports, the fat-soluble, sunshine vitamin has a number of functions that are essential for our well being. These include keeping our bones strong, helping the body absorb calcium better, thereby, protecting it from possible fractures and chances of osteoporosis. It is also vital for the proper functioning of the digestive system, immune system, circulatory system and nervous system.

Causes of Vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency is quite common – various studies have revealed that 80-90 per cent of Indians are deficient. The most common causes of deficiency include:

Lack of exposure to sunlight: If you do not get adequate exposure to sunlight, live in a place that is far from the equator or in a country where there is less sunlight during winter, the chances of you being vitamin D deficient is higher. Further, while it is important to use sunscreen while stepping out in the sun, it can also block the skin's ability to absorb Vitamin D.

Dietary restrictions: If you are someone who does not take dairy products, or follows a strict vegan diet,

Dark skin: People with darker skin has higher levels of the pigment melanin which reduces the body’s ability to make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight.)

Age: Older adults are more prone to vitamin D deficiency as they spend more time indoors. Further, with ageing, the skin becomes thinner and this affects the production of Vitamin D in the skin. Reduced intake of Vitamin D through diet can also lead to deficiency.

Chronic ailments and conditions: Chronic ailments including liver disease, kidney disease or hyperparathyroidism and medical conditions including cystic fibrosis or Crohn’s Disease also affect your body’s ability to absorb Vitamin D from the food you eat.

Obesity: People with a body mass index of 30 or more, often have low levels of Vitamin D as it is extracted from the blood by fat cells.

Smoking: Cigarette smoke reduces the production of active form of Vitamin D. Hence, smokers are at a higher risk of being deficient.

How to increase Vitamin D levels

The most accurate way to test whether you have adequate Vitamin D levels is a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. For an average adult, a range of 20 nanograms/millilitre to 50ng/ml is considered adequate.

Here are some ways in which you can up your Vitamin D levels:

Spend more time outdoors: Sun exposure is the most natural way of getting more Vitamin D. Aim to get between 15-30 minutes of sunlight every day or at least several times a week. If you have darker skin, you may need to spend more time in the sun. Do ensure you apply sunscreen after 30 minutes to protect yourself from sunburns or skin cancer.

Fatty fish: Seafood and fatty fish are among the richest natural sources of Vitamin D. You can up your Vitamin D levels by adding fish such as mackerel, tuna, shrimps and sardines to your diet.

Consume mushrooms: Mushrooms are the only natural source of Vitamin D among vegetarian food. You can increase the content of Vitamin D in mushrooms by exposing them to sunlight for an hour. In a study conducted on 30 adults who were given either Vitamin D capsule for 12 weeks or sun-exposed mushrooms, it was revealed that there was not much difference in the results.

Eat egg yolks: Another source of Vitamin D. However, studies indicate that eggs from free-range chickens produce up to four times more Vitamin D than those raised conventionally in cages. Further, hens raised on a Vitamin D fortified diet also produce eggs with higher Vitamin D levels.

Have fortified food: Many packaged food products are also fortified with Vitamin D. This includes packaged cow's milk, fortified orange juice, cereals, tofu and some plant-based alternatives to milk such as soy, almond and hemp milk.

Vitamin D supplement: For those who do not have much access to any of the above, Vitamin D supplements would help to ensure adequate intake. While going for a supplement, keep in mind that there are two kinds D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol). While Vitamin D2 comes from plants, D3 comes from animals. Vitamin D3, which is also produced by the skin, is found to be more effective in increasing Vitamin D levels in the blood.

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