Benefits of vitamin D shine during COVID-19 pandemic, flu season

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category icon Columns, COVID-19 coverage

We are in the middle of a global pandemic, with over 231,000 COVID-19 cases in Washington state alone. Even with the days getting shorter and darker as we enter the cold winter months, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines are distributed.

In the meantime, it is more important than ever to take appropriate precautions: continue social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and consider taking a vitamin D supplement, which can play a significant role in lessening risks and improving outcomes if you get COVID-19.

Aside from increased COVID-19 risks, low vitamin D levels can result in poor bone health and are associated with an increased susceptibility to diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer – not to mention increased risk for respiratory illnesses, allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis.

Even if you have low levels of vitamin D, you may not even realize it, though many individuals experience fatigue, muscle aches, or bone aches. If you are experiencing any of those symptoms, or if you are interested in knowing your vitamin D levels, speak with your doctor and ask about a blood test.

I have spent my career studying vitamin D and its many benefits for the human body. Often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin upon exposure to sunlight. Unfortunately, for those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, in the late fall and winter the sun is not high enough in the sky for its rays to reach our skin to produce vitamin D.

There is, however, a “plan B” for getting enough vitamin D: through our diet or vitamin supplements. Foods high in vitamin D include oily fish, such as salmon or sardines, red meat, mushrooms, egg yolks and some fortified foods, such as milk and yogurt. Vitamin D supplements are readily available over the counter in grocery stores, pharmacies and online. A combination of foods rich in vitamin D and a dietary supplement should put you in a good position to combat low vitamin D levels.

Many people are at increased risk for low vitamin D deficiency even in the summer. Those working primarily indoors or taking extra precautions against sun exposure by wearing additional layers or sunblock will lack adequate sun exposure to synthesize vitamin D. Communities of color are at increased risk, as they synthesize vitamin D less efficiently due to their darker skin tone.

Elderly populations, many of whom are more likely to stay indoors or use sunscreen, are at extremely high risk of vitamin D deficiency. Lastly, obese individuals are likely to experience low vitamin D status, as increased BMI increases the risks of vitamin D deficiency.

While help is certainly on the way in the form of vaccines, I encourage everyone — especially individuals in high-risk categories — to improve their vitamin D status through diet and supplements – not only during the pandemic, but also in everyday life.

Dr. Adrian Gombart, an expert in vitamin D, is a principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute and a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University. Gombart’s research focuses on understanding how vitamin D regulates immunity.