Nutrition

Why Vitamin D and Calcium are your best friends to combat Pain and Blues this winter?

AUTHOR
Maya Attinello
REVIEWED BY
Kedar Angirus, MD
April 19, 2022

With the winter season hitting harder this year, there's usually less opportunity to get outside in the sunshine when the temperature drops. 

Although you have to get out of bed for other reasons like job commitments and family, motivation might run low, and just the act of getting out of bed can be painful. So staying cozy in a warm bed seems a lot easier than getting up. 

Often overlooked are two essential nutrients that contribute to a healthy mind and body: Vitamin D and Calcium. 

Let's take a deeper look at how these nutrients can improve your health, clarify their function, and how you can integrate them into your diet to manage pain and other discomforts the winter brings.

Did you know that Vitamin D is a hormone?

Vitamin D comes in two forms Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3), Ergocalciferol (Vitamin D2). It's commonly known as a nutrient, but did you know it's really a hormone?

In addition, vitamin D is made from cholesterol when UV rays come in contact with the skin. Then, the liver and kidneys help convert it to its usable form inside the body as a hormone.

Although it's also known as a fat-soluble vitamin, it's technically a steroid hormone. The body makes Vitamin D internally after skin exposure to the sun, whereas nutrients (like vitamins) usually depend on dietary food sources for vitamins. 

What is Vitamin D's role?

Vitamin D has many functions:
  • controls calcium absorption
  • maintains proper levels of calcium and phosphorus
  • assists in making bone and teeth
  • regulates the immune system 
  • aids in balancing some hormones that affect mood

Why is low vitamin D harmful to my health?

Firstly, let's look at how having low vitamin D might cause health problems. Since it's an essential nutrient involved in so many processes, low vitamin D can cause other disease risk factors.

Lower amounts of vitamin D contribute to problems like:

  • weakening of bones in adults (osteoporosis)
  • Rickets disease in children
  • depression
  • cardiovascular disease risk
  • autoimmune disease
  • increased susceptibility to infections
  • too much calcium (hypercalcemia)
  • some cancers

How can I get enough vitamin D?

Getting enough vitamin D can be tricky, especially in the winter months. Yet you can get most of it from exposure to the sun, supplementation, and some foods. 

If you're not able to catch the sun daily, here's what you can do:

  • Take a Vitamin D supplement - current recommendations for adults is 600-800  IU (Health Canada and the NIH) daily taken with a meal with some fat. Fat makes it absorb better so your body can use it. 
  • Eat foods rich in vitamin D are fish such as cod liver oil, trout, salmon, sardines, varieties of mushrooms, fortified milk, liver, beef, chicken, eggs, and cheese. 
  • Vitamin D works together with foods rich in calcium and vitamin K.

How do I test my Vitamin D levels?

It's possible to request your vitamin D levels from your doctor or through online lab testing. Please do note that routine vitamin D testing is not recommended. Your doctor will advise you if testing is required. The test is a blood withdrawal test called 25-hydroxyvitamin D.

Could the “sunshine” vitamin improve mood?

The sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D, is linked to happiness and a good mood. No wonder some people feel a little down when it's cloudy.

In some cases, mood changes can be affected by changing seasons from autumn to winter. 

Living in the northern hemisphere means you could be at risk for vitamin D deficiency and mood disorders like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Scientists don't completely understand why forms of depression, like SAD, happen, but a possible explanation is that light exposure regulates the "happy" hormone serotonin. Serotonin is linked to mood.

The research is still inconclusive regarding the use of vitamin D in treating symptoms of SAD, however, we do know that SAD is classified as a type of depressive illness disorder and that there are ongoing trials for vitamin D intervention.  One of the first-line options to treat SAD is exposure to very bright light /light therapy. Please speak to your doctor if you're not feeling like yourself and have a decreased mood at certain times of the year.

You can also look at our in-depth article on winter blues and SAD for more information.

Pain and vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D supplementation could improve recurrent flares and chronic pain disorders. 

One paper analyzed how vitamin D is associated with pain-related issues like depression, sleep, hormones, the nervous system, and the immune system.

Underlying diseases also contribute to chronic pain, and some studies have shown that vitamin D supplementation could lessen discomfort.

Although it's not well understood, vitamin D may reduce the sensation of chronic pain. In addition, exposure to UV rays demonstrates immense benefits to pain-related disorders. So, getting some sun is helpful, along with supplementation. 

Vitamin D and  melatonin

Vitamin D is involved in the production of melatonin. Melatonin regulates sleep cycles, and one study shows the possible effects of low vitamin D and sleep disorders. Furthermore, it’s possible that supplementing vitamin D could improve sleep.

Vitamin D and Calcium 

Vitamin D and Calcium have an essential role in bone health and work closely together to regulate this. When your vitamin D levels are low, it's challenging to maintain healthy calcium levels. Let's look at why calcium is so important. 

Calcium isn't just about healthy bones and teeth.

Growing up, you've probably heard that drinking milk is good for strong bone development and dental health. Yet, it has many other roles in bones, hormonal function in women, and muscle function.

 

What does calcium do?

As a mineralcalcium functions to:
  • contract and expand major blood vessels
  • strengthen bone
  • hormone secretion (especially in women)
  • cell signaling
  • muscle contraction

Why is calcium vital for my health?

Calcium in the form of hydroxyapatite gives your bones and teeth their strength and structure. It's the most plentiful mineral in your body that's important for cell communication, activating nerves, and contracting muscles. 

In women, low calcium levels are related to menopause health and parathyroid hormone. Parathyroid hormone controls the secretion of calcium and phosphorus.

Calcium is also important for muscle contraction. When you exercise, any slight movement you make involves a muscle contraction; this can be a voluntary movement (walking) or an involuntary (heartbeat). 

When calcium levels are low, your body can take calcium stored in your bones.

Inadequate amounts of calcium contribute to problems like:

  • menopause-related issues
  • osteoporosis and osteopenia
  • skin, hair, and nail issues
  • premenstrual syndrome
  • dental problems
  • muscle cramps and weakness
  • mood issues
  • low vitamin D

How much calcium do I need?

The recommended daily intake of calcium intake differs between men and women and depends on your age. 

As a general rule, men and women under 50 years old require 1000 mg of calcium and over 51 years of age 1200 mg.

Alternatively, you can use this calculator to see your daily calcium requirements or speak to your healthcare practitioner.

Which foods are rich in calcium?

Besides dairy, like milk, cheese, and yogurt, foods high in calcium are leafy green vegetables and fortified foods like cereal, bread, and soymilk. Fish with small soft bones such as sardines and salmon also contain calcium.

Understanding food labels and the amount of calcium in food.

Many foods are fortified with minerals like calcium, for example in packaged foods, vegan and vegetarian options. So if you’re trying to meet your daily calcium requirements with food it’s important to read the nutrition labels.

You can check the nutrition facts on a food label where it says Daily Value or DV.

The amount of calcium a packaged food contains is normally based on 1000 mg of calcium per day. The DV is measured in a percentage. For example, 15% daily value of calcium is equal to 150 mg of calcium.

Is calcium supplementation right for me?

There are mixed data about taking calcium in supplemental form. Too much calcium could contribute to cardiovascular disease, kidney function, and parathyroid disorders. Ultimately, it's best to discuss supplements with your healthcare provider with proper blood tests and medical history.

Simple takeaways

Consider your diet

If you don't already include calcium-rich foods in your diet or get enough sun exposure for vitamin D, consider supplementation to support your dietary needs. However, it is always better to start with food to meet your calcium requirements, whereas vitamin D might need supplementation.

Consider supplementation

2012 study demonstrated that taking vitamin D with calcium reduced mortality in older adults instead of vitamin D alone. Although the evidence seems to support this, consult your doctor or healthcare practitioner to help you decide what might be best for your situation.

Get some sun and don’t forget to exercise

Finally, vitamin D and calcium are important nutrients for bone health and have been shown to improve pain management.

Try to get outside whenever possible to boost your mood with exposure to the sun and try walking. Walking improves bone density and reduces bone loss.

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