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Vitamin D

Vitamin D
Gerda Paulissaint, a medical advocate at Mattapan Community Health Center, attributed her aches and pains to low levels of vitamin D.

A dose of sunshine goes a long way

Born and raised in Haiti, Gerda Paulissaint came to Boston about several years ago and a funny thing happened — she started experiencing aches and pains. Walking up a flight of stairs was particularly painful. “It was as if my legs were talking back to me,” she remembers.

She knew she had high blood pressure, but that didn’t explain that sort of pain or her restless sleep. She dismissed all of her symptoms as simply the result of stress. Without much further thought, she quietly went on with her work as a community health advocate at Mattapan Community Health Center.

And then a light switch turned on.

Many of her patients were complaining of similar aches and pains and most of them had received blood test results showing they lacked a sufficient amount of vitamin D.  

“Wait a minute,” she recalls thinking.  

It finally donned on her that she too might be short on vitamin D. She didn’t wait for a test to confirm her theory. She purchased a supply of over-the-counter vitamin D supplements.

Evidently it helped. Paulissaint later requested a test to determine whether she was deficient. The test revealed a level of 38 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) — a number within the acceptable range, but just barely.

The lack of vitamin D is not all that uncommon. The recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a program sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that a large portion of adults in the United States had low levels of vitamin D.

Adolescents are not immune. A 2004 study by Children’s Hospital Boston determined that the problem was common in otherwise healthy adolescents. Almost one-fourth of the patients studied were low in the vitamin and 5 percent were severely deficient.

The researchers further determined that race, diet, lifestyle and season all played a role. Vitamin D deficiency was more prevalent in black teenagers, those who consumed more soft drinks than milk and those with a high body mass index, an indicator of excessive weight.

So severe is the problem that rickets — once considered a thing of the past — has re-emerged in infants and children, particularly among blacks and those who are lactose intolerant.

Dr. Michael F. Holick, a leading authority on vitamin D and professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine, is unequivocal about the importance of vitamin D and its proper levels required for optimal health.

He refers to several studies that have linked low vitamin D levels with the risk of heart disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, depression, asthma, many cancers and diseases of the immune system.

In the most recent issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, a study indicated that disproportionately low vitamin D levels might explain higher death rates from cardiovascular disease in blacks. The researchers concluded that vitamin D levels might be an independent — and possibly modifiable — risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

The importance of vitamin D is a subject of ongoing debate. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital found that it may be vitamin D — not C — that keeps colds, the flu and other respiratory illnesses at bay. They noted that people with asthma and emphysema, for example, might be particularly susceptible to respiratory infections from vitamin D deficiency — an indication to some medical experts that it might also play a key role in the immune system.

Vitamin D is somewhat of an enigma. For starters, it isn’t a vitamin at all. Vitamins are organic compounds that the body needs but cannot make on its own. Rather, the body receives its vitamins from the food and liquids that we eat and drink.

Unlike other vitamins, vitamin D is made by the body, is found in very few foods, and, oddly enough, is actually a hormone.

Appropriately named the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D’s major source is the sun — ultraviolet B (UVB) rays to be exact — the same rays responsible for suntans, sunburns and skin cancer.

The American Academy of Dermatology warns against unprotected exposure to ultraviolet rays. The Academy declared “There is no scientifically validated, safe threshold level of UV (including UVB) exposure from the sun that allows for maximal vitamin D synthesis without increasing skin cancer risk.”

Dr. Deborah Scott, a dermatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says the sun is an excellent source of vitamin D. But everyone — including African Americans — must guard against excessive exposure. “There’s a balance between sun exposure and vitamin D,” she said.

But where that balance lies is a bit tricky. The times of exposure — and resultant vitamin D levels — vary by person, season, city and time of day.  

Processing those sunrays is a group effort among the skin, liver and kidney. But in order for the process to work, the UVB rays have to be long and strong enough to pull off the job.  And they are — from the spring through early fall. But in the late fall and winter, they are too short and that explains increased deficiencies during cold months.  

A major biological function of vitamin D is to help the body absorb calcium and phosphorus. Calcium is stored in bones, but is a major workhorse throughout the body. It makes the heart work and muscles contract. If vitamin D does not do its job, the body “robs Peter to pay Paul” by taking calcium from the bones and using it elsewhere. The impact on bones can be devastating.  

That’s why low levels of vitamin D are associated with osteoporosis, rickets in children and osteomalacia, or soft bones in adults. Fractures and falls are common in those lacking vitamin D.

The issue of vitamin D is of particular interest to blacks. Melanin — the substance that gives skin its color — provides a barrier to UVB in the skin. That does not mean skin of darker hues cannot make vitamin D — it just takes more time. While it may take whites and people with light skin about 10 minutes to process sufficient levels of vitamin D, it may require blacks closer to an hour.

All of this was new to Paulissaint. Having enough sunshine was not a problem when she lived in Haiti. But living in Boston presented a different challenge, especially considering that symptoms for Vitamin D deficiency are subtle and often unrecognized.  

Aches, pains, fatigue and sleepless nights can all be signs of the deficiency. However, they are often dismissed as the result of aging or a stressful lifestyle. More often than not, doctors are not looking for it and seldom order up the right tests.

A true believer in the power of vitamin D, Palissaint readily admits to backsliding once.

During a summer vacation in Haiti, she stopped taking the supplements, which seemed unnecessary on a Caribbean island.

But when she returned to Boston and did not resume taking the supplements, she paid the price. A follow-up test revealed that her vitamin D level had dropped to 25.8 ng/mL — considered below the standard for healthy living. She is on a two-month prescription of 50,000 IU a week to get her numbers back up.

Paulissaint is now a vitamin D convert. “I feel way, way better,” she said. “I’m a new woman now.”

This article originally ran in Be Healthy Feburary 2010.  For more health topics visit,