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Health experts have long understood that vitamin D is crucial for proper human functioning, yet a staggering number of people worldwide struggle with vitamin D deficiency. By some counts, as many as one billion people across the world (13.6% of the global population) are Vitamin D deficient.
It may seem implausible that such a huge number of people don’t have enough of such a vital nutrient in their bodies. The reasons behind this epidemic, though, are shockingly simple.
People receive less sun exposure
Before the Industrial Revolution, people generally spent more time outside. More people were farmers, and traveling on horseback (or, across oceans, by boat) was more common. These activities led to more sun exposure and, thereby, vitamin D production.
Today, on the other hand, most people spend their 40-hour work weeks at indoor desks. This shift in global work culture has decreased the amount of sun exposure that the average person receives.
Sun exposure is crucial for vitamin D synthesis
The ultraviolet rays that sunlight carries are vital for the body’s natural vitamin D synthesis. Most people are only exposed to this type of light through the sun, explaining how the drop in time spent outdoors has increased global vitamin D deficiency levels.
Many people also know ultraviolet rays as the portion of sunlight that causes sunburns and can, over time, lead to wrinkling, permanent skin damage, and even skin cancer. Sunblock use has increased greatly since scientists first established the link between ultraviolet light and skin problems, and with its increase used comes less opportunity for the body to naturally produce vitamin D.
Vitamin D exists elsewhere
As with other vitamins, vitamin D is also found in many common foods. Fish, milk, and fortified cereals are especially strong sources of vitamin D. The two forms of vitamin D, known as vitamin D2 and D3, come from different food sources. Vitamin D2 is the form found in plant-based foods containing vitamin D, and vitamin D3 is the form found in animal-based foods, including eggs and liver. As well, vitamin D is a common dietary supplement available at many drugstores and grocery stores in pill form.
Vitamin D deficiency can have serious consequences
Low vitamin D intake can lead to medical problems including heart disease, autoimmune diseases, weight gain, and inflammatory bowel syndrome. Proper vitamin D intake also fights inflammation and infection and helps to maintain a healthy nervous system. Skeletal deformations such as osteoporosis and rickets, which can occur in children not receiving enough vitamin D, are especially strongly associated with vitamin D deficiency.
Some say the vitamin D epidemic is exaggerated
Despite reports that one billion people (and as many as 42 percent of Americans) are vitamin D deficient, some people insist that vitamin D deficiency isn’t as vast a problem as it’s made to be. To date, no medical studies have established a link between screening asymptomatic adults for vitamin D deficiency and preventing diseases or other ailments. Additionally, in many studies that established the health benefits of vitamin D, the people being studied were already doing things that would lead to good health, potentially skewing the data that suggest increased vitamin D intake alone is beneficial.
Despite the potential harms of not getting enough vitamin D, it’s likely best to avoid supplements unless a doctor suggests them. Vitamin D is, after all, something people can make any time they’re exposed to the sun.