Vitamin D, aka the "sunshine vitamin," has many health benefits. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains that vitamin D is produced when the sun's ultraviolet rays hit the skin but that it can also be found in foods and supplements. It's mainly known for calcium production that keeps our bones healthy, but it also boosts your immune system and strengthens your skin's overall health. However, having a vitamin D deficiency could also wreak havoc on your skin.
To break down everything there is to know about vitamin D and its relation to our health and skin, we talked to New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Rachel Maiman, M.D. Here, she explains why you should care about vitamin D, what it does, what to do if you have a deficiency, why BIPOC have to be extra attentive to their vitamin D intake, and more. Read what she had to say below.
1. Vitamin D deficiency can speed up signs of aging.
Dr. Maiman explains that when vitamin D is in its most active form, it facilitates the growth, repair, and metabolism of skin cells. This directly affects whether we see premature signs of aging, such as fine lines and loss of elasticity.
She explains that when skin cells age, their telomeres (caps of genetic material on the ends of DNA strands) shorten and render DNA unstable, which results in those skin cells dying off more quickly. According to a 2007 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, high levels of vitamin D correlated to longer telomeres and a longer life span for that skin cell. So it's important to maintain high levels of vitamin D for firm and smooth skin.
2. Vitamin D can boost our immune systems.
Studies show that increased vitamin D intake can help those struggling with autoimmune diseases and reduce their chances of getting infections like the human papillomavirus (HPV). People with a vitamin D deficiency increase their risk of developing severe respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In fact, Dr. Maiman points out that there are emerging studies that show a link between vitamin D deficiency and COVID-19.
3. There are symptoms of vitamin D deficiency to look out for.
The only way to know if you have low vitamin D is to get tested by a physician. However, there are some symptoms you can look out for: Tiredness, bone or muscle pain, or stress fractures on your pelvis or hip could be signs of vitamin D deficiency. If you've noticed any of them, be sure to go and ask your doctor to get tested.
4. People with melanin-rich skin are at a higher risk for vitamin D deficiency.
Dr. Maiman explains that a vitamin D deficiency occurs when there is an inadequate nutritional intake of it, which can be caused by disorders that limit vitamin D absorption, conditions that impair vitamin D conversion (this can include hereditary metabolic disorders and certain liver and kidney diseases), or inadequate sunlight exposure.
She says that people with darker skin are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency as their skin contains higher concentrations of melanin pigment, which blocks the absorption of UV rays. "Because UVB exposure is required to initiate the first step in the synthesis of vitamin D, people with darker skin produce less vitamin D in response to the same amount of sunlight as those with lighter skin."
5. Supplements are the best way to treat vitamin D deficiency.
If you find that you do have vitamin D deficiency, Dr. Maiman says treatment will involve supplements under the supervision of a physician. Recommended doses of vitamin D will depend on how you're diagnosed, but she says to expect it to take three months to make sure it's working.
5. Topical treatments probably won't help.
There are lots of vitamin D beauty products on the market, but Dr. Maiman says they're not enough to supplement levels of vitamin D—no matter how many of these products you have in your routine. What these products do, however, is help firm skin, reduce the appearance of fine lines, and combat other signs of aging. She recommends Drunk Elephant's D-Bronzi Antipollution Serum as "it contains chronocyclin, a peptide that mimics the antioxidant properties of vitamin D." Additionally, Dr. Maiman adds that it operates "similarly to enzymes found in the epidermis that convert sunlight to vitamin D during the day." Consider us sold.
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7. Sun exposure can help boost vitamin D intake.
Yes, sun exposure can help, but Dr. Maiman says not to prolong time spent under the sun if you have a deficiency as it only takes 10 minutes of sun exposure for vitamin D synthesis to occur. Plus, if you spend an excessive amount of time in the sun, you increase the risk of skin cancer, premature fine lines, and dark spots. You're better off sticking with maintaining a healthy diet to keep those vitamin D levels up.
8. Vitamin D deficiency may cause weak bones.
The major consequence of a vitamin D deficiency is weak bones. Dr. Maiman explains if you have low levels of vitamin D, you become prone to diseases such as osteomalacia and osteoporosis.
9. Prevention is key.
As with most things, prevention is the best form of treatment. To prevent a vitamin D deficiency from happening, Dr. Maiman says to make sure there are adequate amounts of it in your diet. She says good nutritional sources of vitamin D include fortified milk, cheeses, yogurt, cereal, and oily fish like salmon and tuna. As previously mentioned, supplements are another way to get vitamin D—just be sure you've consulted your physician.