LMU 163 – The Sunshine Vitamin's Silent Power: How Vitamin D Could Help Battle COVID-19
Source: MedRxiv (April 2020) and the Irish Medical Journal (May 2020)
Lifestyle Medicine Update (May 16, 2020)
Recent research has unveiled a surprising connection between Vitamin D levels and the severity of respiratory infections, including COVID-19. Investigating the varying COVID-19 mortality rates, scientists discovered that countries with higher mortality had lower Vitamin D levels in their populations. This article explores the role of Vitamin D in COVID-19 severity, its impact on the immune system, vulnerable populations, and actionable steps individuals can take to optimize their Vitamin D levels, potentially reducing the risk of severe COVID-19 complications.
Vitamin D – A Potential Game-Changer in the Fight Against COVID-19
In our pursuit of understanding and combating COVID-19, science has uncovered a potentially significant player in the battle – Vitamin D. Recent studies, highlighted in the Lifestyle Medicine Updates, have illuminated a surprising link between Vitamin D levels and the severity of respiratory tract infections, including COVID-19 .
The Discovery That Turned Heads
The journey into this newfound territory began in April 2020 when a team of researchers, led by Vadim Backman at Northwestern University, embarked on a mission to decipher the factors behind the varying COVID-19 mortality rates across countries. Italy, Spain, and the UK had alarmingly high rates compared to countries with milder impacts. The team was determined to unravel this mystery.
The Role of Vitamin D in COVID-19 Severity
As the research progressed, a striking pattern emerged. Patients from countries with elevated COVID-19 mortality rates, like Italy and Spain, had lower levels of Vitamin D compared to those from less severely affected regions. The connection was undeniable, and it led the researchers down an unexpected path – a significant correlation with Vitamin D deficiency .
Vadim Backman explained that despite hypotheses suggesting factors like healthcare quality, population age distribution, testing rates, or different coronavirus strains, none appeared to be the primary culprit. Instead, Vitamin D deficiency stood out as a prominent factor influencing the severity of COVID-19 outcomes .
Unravelling the Mechanism – How Vitamin D Impacts COVID-19
Understanding the connection between Vitamin D and COVID-19 severity requires delving into the intricate workings of our immune system.
- The Immune System’s Dual Role: Our immune system comprises two branches: the innate and adaptive immune systems. Vitamin D plays a pivotal role in both.
- Innate Immune System: This frontline defence relies on Vitamin D to synthesize anti-septic chemicals that act like molecular warriors, combating viruses, bacteria, and fungi on contact. Adequate Vitamin D levels equip this system to swiftly neutralize pathogens, preventing infections from taking root.
- Adaptive Immune System: If an infection does gain a foothold, the adaptive immune system steps in, generating specific antibodies to combat the invader. However, sometimes, this system can overreact, releasing excessive cytokines – small proteins responsible for cell signalling. This overreaction can trigger a cytokine storm, leading to organ failure and often, death.
- The Role of Vitamin D Deficiency
Low levels of Vitamin D not only hinder the innate immune system’s ability to counteract pathogens but also contribute to the overactivation of the adaptive immune system. This overactivity results in the dreaded cytokine storm, responsible for the life-threatening aspects of the virus. In essence, it’s not the virus itself but the immune system’s response that poses the greatest danger.
Optimal Vitamin D levels enhance the innate immune system’s effectiveness in eradicating viruses upon contact and temper the adaptive immune system’s response. This balance allows the body to generate necessary antibodies to combat the infection without spiralling into a cytokine storm.
Interestingly, children, who are less prone to cytokine storms, have not fully developed their adaptive immune systems, potentially explaining why they are largely spared from the severe effects of COVID-19 .
The Vulnerable Populations
Certain groups are more susceptible to Vitamin D deficiency, making them particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Elderly Individuals: Those over 80 years old often fall into the high-risk category for Vitamin D deficiency, prevalent in many developed countries.
- Darker-Skinned Individuals: People with darker skin living above or below the 40th-degree latitude in developed countries are at risk of year-round Vitamin D deficiency. The higher melanin levels in their skin function as a shield against UV light, preventing Vitamin D synthesis.
- Overweight Individuals: Obesity, a known risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes, is linked to low Vitamin D levels. Excess body fat stores more Vitamin D, reducing its circulation in the bloodstream. Overweight individuals also release inflammatory cytokines from fat cells, further lowering Vitamin D levels.
Actionable Steps – Assessing and Addressing Vitamin D Levels
In light of these findings, it is prudent for individuals to consider assessing and optimizing their Vitamin D levels, especially during the ongoing pandemic.
- The Importance of Assessment: A crucial first step is to have your Vitamin D levels assessed by a healthcare provider. If your blood Vitamin D level falls below 80 nmol/L (32 ng/ml), it may be wise to discuss a strategy for achieving an ideal or optimal range.
- Sunlight and Supplements: Sunlight is a natural source of Vitamin D, but for those living in regions where sunlight is limited, especially during the winter months, supplementation may be necessary. A healthcare professional can guide you in determining the right dosage for your individual needs.
- The Insights of Researchers: Experts like Vadim Backman, who have closely examined the link between Vitamin D and COVID-19, emphasize the potential benefits of optimizing Vitamin D levels. Their research suggests that not only can Vitamin D promote bone and muscle health, but it may also reduce the severity of COVID-19 complications by regulating and suppressing the inflammatory cytokine response .
A Brighter Horizon with Vitamin D
As we navigate the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of Vitamin D shines as a potential ally in our quest for better health outcomes. This unassuming vitamin, often associated with bone health, may hold the key to mitigating the severe consequences of the virus.
While further research is needed to fully understand the intricacies of COVID-19 and other coronaviruses, the evidence so far suggests that optimizing Vitamin D levels could be a wise step in protecting our health. In the face of uncertainty, let us embrace the power of knowledge and work towards a brighter and healthier future.
- Ali Daneshkhah, Vasundhara Agrawal, Adam Eshein, Hariharan Subramanian, Hemant Kumar Roy, Vadim Backman. The Possible Role of Vitamin D in Suppressing Cytokine Storm and Associated Mortality in COVID-19 Patients. medRxiv, Posted April 30, 2020 [Link](https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.08.20058578v3)
- “Cytokine Storm and Covid-19” – The Lancet, April 27, 2020 [Link](https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30216-2/fulltext)
- Quotes from the Lead Researcher Vadim Backman [Link](https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200507121353.htm)
- Laird E, Rhodes J, Kenny RA. Vitamin D and inflammation: Potential implications for the severity of Covid-19. Irish Medical Journal. 113;5:81 2020. [Link](http://imj.ie/vitamin-d-and-inflammation-potential-implications-for-severity-of-covid-19/)
- “Vitamin D levels appear to play role in COVID-19 mortality rates” – Science Daily, May 12, 2020 [Link](https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200512134426.htm)
Dr. James Meschino
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. James Meschino, DC, MS, ROHP, is an educator, author, and researcher having lectured to thousands of healthcare professionals across North America. He holds a Master’s Degree in Science with specialties in human nutrition and biology and is recognized as an expert in the field of nutrition, anti-aging, fitness, and wellness as well as the author of numerous books.