What We Know About Vitamin D and Its Role in Warding Off Infections

October 2, 2020

Vitamin D has gained more popularity than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, as various studies have pointed to vitamin D deficiency as a risk factor for a more severe respiratory infection.

Before jumping straight to our local pharmacy’s shelves, we discussed with Jefferson Health – New Jersey Infectious Diseases Specialist Dr. Joseph DeRose how vitamin D actually impacts our bodies, how to healthily get more of it, and what its true role is in warding off infections.

Vitamin D is integral in building and maintaining muscle and bone health, says Dr. DeRose. Without adequate levels, you can develop muscle and bone weakness, which can result in osteoporosis and fractures. Many studies have also shown that deficiency can compromise the immune system, as vitamin D supports anti-inflammatory and immunoregulatory body functions.

Vitamin D deficiency is incredibly common — impacting more than 40 percent of the U.S. population — but many people are unaware of it, explains Dr. DeRose. “Symptoms may include fatigue, chronic muscle weakness, or depression, but these can also be a result of many other things. More often than not, people don’t present with specific symptoms; it’s just found through routine screenings.”

Dr. Joseph DeRose

Unfortunately, vitamin D levels can’t be increased much through food consumption, so sun exposure is key. On average, it takes around 10-30 minutes of sunlight each day, several days a week to synthesize enough vitamin D.

“During a time like the pandemic, when many have been quarantined at-home, this has been especially difficult,” said Dr. DeRose. “You may also be at higher risk for deficiency if you’re Black or Hispanic, as darker skin synthesizes vitamin D at a much slower rate.”

You should consider finding out from your doctor whether or not you are deficient before taking any over-the-counter supplements, urges Dr. DeRose. There are specific levels that are recommended -- which your doctor can help you understand -- and if they’re surpassed, toxicity could occur, resulting in nausea, weight-loss, confusion, and sometimes more severe complications.

Multiple studies are being held currently to determine whether or not vitamin D deficiency is a direct factor in more severe cases of COVID-19, but it’s likely a combination of things, explains Dr. DeRose. The most evidentiary impact vitamin D has on COVID-19 progression is that adequate levels may prevent cytokine storm, which is an exaggerated inflammatory response that has been linked to more severe COVID-19 cases.

For the time being, however, the answer is largely unknown. Dr. DeRose notes that “correlation doesn’t prove causation” — meaning that just because a factor appears doesn’t mean it’s the whole cause of the problem – and that it could take a few years or more to learn what the exact outcome is of these studies.

“While it’s tempting to reach for things that are easily accessible, like over-the-counter supplements, there is no guarantee that it will help you. If you’re not careful, it could harm you,” said Dr. DeRose.

It’s important to remember that other vitamins and minerals — such as zinc and B and C vitamins — also help support the immune system. One of the best things you can do to reduce your risk for illness, in general, is to eat a well-balanced diet, stay physically active, and maintain your weight.

Before you look for one simple answer to COVID-19 prevention, don’t forget to take care of every aspect of your health and well-being as much as possible.

For more information on Infectious Diseases Services and other Primary & Specialty Care services offered at Jefferson Health – New Jersey, click HERE.