Vitamin D and COVID-19: What You Need to Know

I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it: There is no silver bullet for COVID-19.

Earlier this week, we covered some of the big issues with studies on single issues like baldness and blood type.

Today, I want to touch on vitamin D.

A recent study pointed to a correlation between COVID-19 rates and low vitamin D levels. But it's a broad topic, and there's no cause-and-effect proven.

Vitamin D is essential to many of our body's functions, including building bone strength and supporting the immune system.

We get about 50% to 90% of our vitamin D from the sun and the rest from our diet. Vitamin D produced by the body from sunlight is important in preventing several diseases as well – such as multiple sclerosis and depression. It's also associated with lower rates of pancreatic cancer... one of the deadliest cancers out there.

That's why I always push folks to get as much sunshine as possible.

But when we look at those with low levels of vitamin D, that doesn't help pinpoint risk as much. That's because more than 40% of Americans have insufficient levels of vitamin D. About 60% of nursing home residents have lower levels of vitamin D, and folks with more melanin in their skin have lower vitamin D levels, as well.

My take is that it's not low levels of vitamin D alone that put people at higher risk... It's likely one of many factors. The others include coinfections, advanced age, and other medical conditions like diabetes, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Let me be clear:

  • Vitamin D is essential for our immune system.
  • A weak immune system is a risk for severe cases of COVID-19.
  • Vitamin D levels drop with age and in folks with limited sun exposure.
  • Vitamin D levels alone do not explain the increased risk for severe COVID-19.

So although vitamin D isn't the only cause for severe COVID-19 risk, it is one of the things we can (and should) control.

About 20 minutes of sunlight midday on 40% exposed skin is just enough to get the vitamin D that you need. Some people may need more time, others less. And it may change with season and location. For example, you'd need more time in the winter in Boston than you would in Miami in the summer.

Sunblock prevents your skin from making vitamin D as well, so try to use a low-SPF sunblock or go out in short periods to avoid sunburn.

Even better, do what I do... When I go out for longer than my usual lunchtime walk, I practice common sense to avoid skin damage. For instance, I avoid going out too long between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. during the hottest part of the summer or on very sunny days.

What's more, if you do go out, then wear hats, particularly wide-brimmed ones. That helps protect the sensitive parts of your face, ears, and neck. Invest in cover-ups, hats, and light jackets for the summer, too. Some companies like Sunday Afternoons even make sun-protective swim shirts.

And always wear sunglasses. Sun exposure damages your eyes and it promotes the development of cataracts, too.

Also, if you have a family history of skin cancer, take extra precautions. That includes checking yourself for skin cancer and going every few years for a skin-cancer screening. Make sure you keep an eye on any strange moles and marks. You can read up on the ABCDEs of skin cancer right here.

Finally, boost your intake of vitamin D-rich foods instead of going straight to a supplement. Fish like salmon, tuna, and herring have a lot of vitamin D. You can also get it in egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified foods like milk and cereal.

Getting enough vitamin D is critical for your health whether there's a pandemic or not. Go outside and get your sunshine and exercise – you'll feel better and boost your body's own defense system.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 25, 2020