Here in Bozeman we love to be active. From running to biking to skiing to…
Dr. Bacon here. If there is one lab that patients ask about the most, it is Vitamin D. It’s also one of the most common labs I run. This is mainly due to the fact that many of my patients are aware of Vitamin D because of the huge amount of media exposure on the subject. They’re often aware of the general importance of Vitamin D, as well as the high incidence of Vitamin D deficiency at Bozeman’s distance from the equator.
I’m glad my patients are so aware of these issues because Vitamin D testing is crucial for two reasons. First, it’s a vitamin that is critical for optimal health, playing an important role in things like building strong bones and maintaining a robust immune system. Second, extra Vitamin D is not easily excreted from the body, which means taking too much can be toxic. Add these two factors together and it becomes important for your health that you know if you need to take it or if you shouldn’t be taking it.
Is it “Vitamin D Season” Yet?
With all the media exposure of Vitamin D issues, most people have learned that active Vitamin D is mostly made in our skin when we get sun exposure. However, when I’m talking to my patients about Vitamin D, many of them are often surprised to learn that from September to May, here in Bozeman, we do not get the correct rays from the sun to convert Vitamin D. So regardless of how much sun exposure you get during those months, none of it will turn into Vitamin D.
To make things even trickier, during the months where good Vitamin D exposure is possible, you actually don’t get conversion for the entire day (this is due to the changing angle of the sun in the sky). Also, these times change throughout the Vitamin D season. Plus, during various times of the day, it takes different total amounts of time to get sufficient amounts of sunshine to convert enough Vitamin D. Sounds confusing? It is! But luckily technology is here to help. There are a number of apps for your phone that can do all these calculations for you. Our favorite one we’ve found is called dminder, and it’s available for both iPhone and Android.
Vitamin D Supplementation
Living in an area like Bozeman where you cannot always get Vitamin D from the sun suggests that some of us will require supplements during these months to maintain healthy D levels. So how do you find out if you need to start taking Vitamin D or if you need to avoiding taking it? A simple blood test will give us the information we need. I run these tests for patients in my office all the time. The test allows us to check the level of active Vitamin D in your system and then determine if you need to take a supplement and how much.
The Importance of Vitamin D
So why is it important to correct low Vitamin D levels anyway? Most of the advantages you get from having normal Vitamin D levels aren’t ones you will necessarily feel in your body. However, this doesn’t mean they are not important benefits. Quite the contrary. The most well understood benefit from having normal Vitamin D levels is protecting your bones from rickets. But Vitamin D plays other important roles in many parts of your body including:
- Immune System – It’s clear that Vitamin D has many functions in our immune system. These roles suggest that it may improve the body’s response to infection, possibly reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases (like MS, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Lupus), and may reduce the risk of cancer. Considerable investigation is still needed but some studies have shown normal Vitamin D levels associated with significant reductions in certain cancers including breast and colon cancers.
- Cardiovascular System – Vitamin D helps produce certain chemicals in the body that are important for healthy blood pressure. This suggests that low Vitamin D levels may contribute to high blood pressure.
- Endocrine System – Low Vitamin D may cause problems with insulin production and blood sugar levels, possibly playing a role in diseases like diabetes.
- Nervous System – Vitamin D plays important roles in nerve health, and low levels may lead to memory issues in people as they age. Though I have not seen research on this, I regularly have patients report improvement in mood upon starting Vitamin D supplementation, especially in relation to seasonal affective disorder.
No Too Low, Not Too High
I recommend my patients have their levels checked at least once per year to make sure they are not too low or too high. In addition, if you begin supplementing with Vitamin D, I recommend you get your levels checked three to six months after you start the supplements to see how your body is responding. Different people respond differently to taking Vitamin D: some have fairly quick improvement in their blood levels, while others can take a very long time for their levels to improve.
The reason I recommend careful monitoring is because it’s important to make sure your levels are both not too low, as well as not too high. Vitamin D can be very easily stored in the body, so too much supplementation can result in levels of Vitamin D that are too high, which can be very dangerous and toxic to the body. Luckily, if supplementation is carefully monitored, your levels can be raised easily and safely without the risk of toxicity.
If Vitamin D is on your mind, I hope this article answered any questions you might have about it. Since we don’t live in Honolulu or Miami (places with year-round Vitamin D conversion), it’s important for us Bozemanites to keep a close eye on our Vitamin D levels so we can ensure we are able to maintain that active mountain lifestyle we love so much.
Take care and be well,