What are the effects of vitamin D deficiency?

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Answered by: Christine, An Expert in the Diet and Health Category
Almost 75 percent of the U.S. population suffers from vitamin D deficiency, according to a 2009 study published in the "Archives of Internal Medicine." Sunlight absorbed through the skin produces most vitamin D, but the July 26, 2010 "New York Times" article "What Do You Lack? Probably Vitamin D" reported that people are spending less time in the sun than they used to, and whole food can only supply a portion of the required daily intake of vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency causes a number of serious health concerns.


Vitamin D regulates the body's absorption of both calcium and phosphorous. Insufficient levels of vitamin D spur the body to release both minerals from bones, causing the bones to become soft and weak. In children whose bones are still growing, if the process isn't reversed in sufficient time it can lead to rickets, which is characterized by skeletal deformities such as a curvature of the spine or bowed legs. Other symptoms of rickets include dental problems, muscle weakness, and bone pain.


Osteomalacia, or adult rickets, is similar to rickets, but occurs in adults after the skeletal structure has already formed. Instead of causing skeletal deformities, osteomalacia causes muscle and bone weakness, the latter of which can lead to bone fractures.


The National Institute on Aging conducted a study that found a correlation between low vitamin D levels and depression in people older than 65. The study indicated older people with lower levels of vitamin D are more likely to become depressed over time than their counterparts with sufficient vitamin D levels. The study's authors theorized that preventing or treating vitamin D deficiencies might be one way of reducing geriatric depression and its related health risks, but they emphasized the study did not prove a causal relationship between vitamin D deficiency and depression.


Dr. Michael Holick, the author of "The Vitamin D Solution," believes that low infant levels of vitamin D, caused by parents protecting their children from the sun, may explain the increased rates of type I diabetes. The incidence of type I diabetes in Finland fell by 88 percent when infants received 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day, according to Holick.


People with vitamin D deficiency experience higher rates of prostate, colon, and breast cancer, according to MedlinePlus. At this time, it's unclear whether vitamin D deficiency is a risk factor for developing cancer or increased levels of vitamin D protect against cancer.


Because vitamin D plays an integral role in calcium absorption, chronic vitamin D deficiency contributes to osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weak and break easily.

Sources of Vitamin D

Vitamin D from food sources comes in two varieties: vitamin D3, which is found in animal products, and vitamin D2 which is found in mushrooms. Mushrooms artificially exposed to ultraviolet light have even higher levels of vitamin D2. Foods that don't normally contain high levels of vitamin D are also fortified with vitamin D3 to supplement dietary intake. Animal sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel, tuna, fortified milk and juices, sardines, beef liver, fortified cereals and eggs.

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