Vitamin D’s Surprising Impact on Brain Health
Did you know that as you age your body’s ability to turn sunlight into vitamin D decreases?
Did you also know that vitamin D levels significantly impact brian health?
Vitamin D is a critical nutrient for good health but too many people simply don't get enough of the "sunshine vitamin."
It’s not easy to get most of the year, and it’s not in too many foods. This could help explain why vitamin D deficiencies are very common. But what does vitamin D actually do? And what does a deficiency of it really mean any way?
Keep reading to get the lowdown on this critical, all-too-often deficient vitamin. And discover three ways you can get enough of it.
Functions of Vitamin D
For starters, vitamin D is a hormone that has many functions.
One of these functions is to allow for the proper absorption of calcium in our body. Vitamin D helps us absorb calcium from our food and helps us build strong bones. Without it, we can experience muscle weakness and pain or bones that become misshapen, brittle, and break easily. Not getting enough vitamin D can also lead to bone diseases like osteomalacia.
Vitamin D also helps with immune function and cellular growth.
But other less-known functions of vitamin D are related to brain health.
Vitamin D receptors are located throughout the body, including the central nervous system and the brain’s hippocampus. In fact, vitamin D activates and deactivates certain enzymes in the brain that help create neurotransmitters and grow nerves.
Additionally, laboratory studies suggest that vitamin D is protective of neurons and reduces inflammation. Higher levels of vitamin D in the blood, therefore, may protect brain function and reduce the risk of future cognitive decline.
If we don’t have enough vitamin D, not only can our bones be affected, but so can our brain, our cognitive function, and our moods. In fact, enough vitamin D can help prevent mood imbalances such as depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly referred to as SAD.
Inadequate of levels vitamin D can also increase your risk of heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and certain cancers.
The Benefits of Vitamin D on Brain Health
Several important brain health benefits arise form having optimal levels of vitamin D in the blood. They include:
A clearing of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain - A build-up of the toxic beta-amyloid proteins in the brain may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. Having optimal levels of vitamin D encourage the removal of these dangerous toxins to stave off Alzheimer’s.
Promotion of neurogenesis - The formation of new healthy brain cells is important to maintain cognitive function, preserve memory, and allow for the creation and storage of new memories.
Protection against neuro-inflammation - It’s no secret that inflammation in the body creates disease; inflammation in the brain is no different. In the case of brain inflammation, neurodegenerative diseases result. Higher levels of vitamin D have also been credited with reducing cognitive impairment and disability following a stroke. Optimal levels of vitamin D can therefore be neuro-protective.
More brain grey matter - Grey matter is the type of brain tissue where nerve cell bodies can be found. It’s also where these cell bodies form functional connections with other cells. The cerebral cortex is one of the areas in the brain where grey matter can be found. It’s also the part of the brain responsible for controlling cognition, executive functioning, memory recall, and the formation of new memories. So more grey matter results in improved cognitive abilities and better memory.
Remyelination of nerves - Exciting new research has suggested that activating vitamin D receptors can strengthen the cells that create myelin. Myelin creates the protective sheath around nerve fibres that insulate them. When a person has Multiple Sclerosis, this myelin sheath often erodes, making it much harder for nerves to send and receive messages. So by encouraging the creation of new myelin, vitamin D can help enhance the remyelination in MS patients.
In addition to the brain health benefits of vitamin D described above, optimal levels of vitamin D have other health benefits, too. These include:
Improved bone health
Improved cell function throughout the body, and
Normalized insulin and blood sugar levels
Establishing and maintaining optimal levels of vitamin D can therefore, be a good start to taking care of both your body and your brain.
How much Vitamin D is enough?
Certain people have a greater risk for developing vitamin D deficiency, including those with kidney or liver disease, obese individuals, people with darker skin, those who live far from the equator, people who are not exposed to much sunlight, and the elderly.
The symptoms of vitamin D deficiencies vary but can include bone diseases, cataracts, vision problems, gum disease, insomnia, weight loss, and hair loss.
In terms of brain health, lower levels of vitamin D have been associated with:
Deteriorating brain function
Low mood or depression
Mild memory loss
Slower information processing speed
Brain atrophy (the loss of brain tissue volume over time)
Common forms of age-related cognitive decline include mild cognitive impairment and dementia. When there are low levels of vitamin D in the blood, our risk for experiencing these disorders increases.
So how much is enough?
The "official" minimum amount of vitamin D to strive for each day is merely 400-600 IU. But many experts don’t think this is nearly enough for the optimal health of our bodies and brains. They suggest most people should be consuming 1,000 - 4,000 IU each day.
To ensure you get adequate amounts of vitamin D, you can implement any combination of the three vitamin D sources mentioned below on a weekly basis.
Three ways to improve your Vitamin D levels
Generally, there are three ways to increase your levels of vitamin D - through sun exposure, through certain foods, and through supplementation.
Let’s start with sun exposure.
Your skin makes vitamin D when it's exposed to the sun; that's why it's referred to as the "sunshine vitamin.”
How much vitamin D your skin makes depends on many things. Location, season, cloud cover, and your clothing all affect the amount of vitamin D your skin can produce from the sun.
One standard recommendation is to get about 5–30 minutes of sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. to the face, arms, legs, or back. This should be done without sunscreen, at least twice a week. Of course, we should always avoid sunburns.
Unfortunately, in some locations (and seasons of the year) it's not easy to get this kind of sun exposure. So, how can we get enough vitamin D in other ways?
Supplementation and regular blood testing of vitamin D levels can be helpful in maintaining optimal levels of vitamin D to support proper brain health.
But please be aware that certain conditions and the colour of your skin may affect your body’s ability to absorb vitamin D. So before you start taking vitamin D containing supplements, make sure you check that it won't interact with other supplements or medications you may be taking. Always read your labels, and ask a healthcare professional for advice.
Do not take more than the suggested dosage on the label of any vitamin D supplement, except under medical care.
The maximum amount recommended (for the general population) is 4,000 IU/day. Too much vitamin D can raise your blood levels of calcium (to an unsafe level), which can affect your heart and kidneys.
The best thing, if you're concerned, is to ask your healthcare professional to do a blood test and make a recommendation about how much vitamin D in supplement form is right for you. Your healthcare practitioner may recommend higher amounts of vitamin D supplementation for a short time while under their care.
Of course, your choice of foods is also crucial for the health of your brain. If you’d like help creating the best nutritional program for you, please contact me.
Top 5 food sources of vitamin D
Vitamin D is naturally found in fatty fish, liver, and egg yolks, with the top 5 food sources being:
Cod liver oil
Wild Alaskan salmon
In addition, some mushrooms make vitamin D when they're exposed to the sun.
And other foods you may be eating are "fortified" with vitamin D (which means vitamin D has been added). These include dairy products like milk and yogurt, some orange juices, and breakfast cereals. It will say on the label how much vitamin D has been added per serving.
Unfortunately, an increasing number of people are sensitive to milk products and cannot handle them. For this reason, better sources of vitamin D include the top five food sources listed above.
Vitamin D is an essential fat-soluble vitamin of which many people have a hard time maintaining adequate levels. There are three ways to get enough vitamin D: sun exposure, through certain foods, and in supplements.
Between sun exposure and food, it still may be difficult to get the minimum of 400 IU of vitamin D each day, which is why vitamin D supplements are quite popular.
If you're concerned with your levels of vitamin D, it's best to request a blood test to discover your vitamin D levels and to be sure what's right for you. Always take supplements as directed.
If you’d like more information or help creating the best brain-healthy nutritional plan for you, please contact me.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and value your feedback. Let me know what you think by dropping me a line or commenting below.
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