Is Vitamin D the solution to our Covid problems?

Is Vitamin D the solution to our Covid problems?
Mounting evidence suggests that taking a Vitamin D supplement may be a game-changer in the fight against Covid-19, writes Jason Osborne

In recent weeks, the cross-party Oireachtas Committee on Health published a 28-page report suggesting that Irish people should take daily Vitamin D supplements. This comes due to growing evidence that it might help to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks.

This idea has been floating around internationally for a while, but the report symbolises a real breakthrough of understanding in terms of the importance of Vitamin D in the Irish context.

Furthermore, the same report recommended that anyone attending a Covid-19 test centre be given Vitamin D, and that an “opt-out” system should be developed for the supplement in nursing homes and among healthcare workers to encourage uptake.

While the Department of Health and NPHET had previously cautioned that there was insufficient evidence to prove Vitamin D’s efficacy against Covid-19, increasing international evidence from our European neighbours like France, Spain and Finland urged the review here.

It found that while Vitamin D is no “cure”, it can certainly help to limit the impact of Covid-19 and other illnesses.

When most of us think about this vitamin, we think of milk and bones (our thoughts guided perhaps by advertisements we saw as children), but further background on it might be of use.

Vitamin D

Vitamins are nutrients that your body needs in small amounts to work properly and stay healthy. Most people get a sufficient amount by eating a varied and balanced diet, but others need supplements. This can be due to a deficiency is some vitamin or other.

To turn to Vitamin D – it has several important functions. It does help to regulate the amount of calcium (hence the connection in the minds of most with milk, teeth and bones) and phosphate in the body, and is needed to keep bones and teeth healthy.

Furthermore, vitamins play against each other in the ecosystem of the body; if you don’t get enough Vitamin D, you may well be at risk of some of the more harmful effects of too much Vitamin A. Foremost among these being that too much Vitamin A over the years makes your bones more likely to fracture as you get older. As you may already have discerned, Vitamin D helps to offset this risk by contributing to strong and healthy bones.

People who ought to be watchful of a deficiency in Vitamin D include:

  • All pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • All people aged 65 and over
  • People who aren’t exposed to much sun, such as those who cover up their skin for cultural reasons, those who are housebound or confined indoors for one reason or another (particularly relevant after a year of overwhelming time spent in lockdown)
  • People with darker skin, such as people of African-Caribbean and South Asian origin.

As many may have learned in History in secondary school as they studied the storied ‘Age of Exploration’, which saw people sailing around the world on limited supplies, deficiencies in Vitamin D can lead to rickets – something many explorers and sailors were afflicted with as their supplies dwindled to stale biscuits on their expeditions – but rickets is not to be limited to them either, as seen above. Anyone experiencing a deficiency in Vitamin D could develop it.

Sources of Vitamin D

Funnily enough, most of our Vitamin D comes from sunlight on our skin. This is one of the primary reasons Vitamin D supplementation is so important for Irish people – especially as we emerge from what was a long and dark winter.

The vitamin forms under the skin in reaction to sunlight, with the best source of Vitamin D being the powerful sunlight summer offers. Naturally, a fine line has to be walked between soaking up some sunlight in the pursuit of Vitamin D and earning yourself a nasty burn, so take care with that.

Other sources of Vitamin D can be found in a small number of foods. A couple of these are:

  • Oily fish, such as salmon or sardines
  • Eggs
  • Fortified fat spreads
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Powdered milk

With regards to how much Vitamin D is needed, it is generally thought that you don’t need Vitamin D in your diet every day. That’s because any of the vitamin that your body doesn’t need immediately is stored for future use.

The Food Safety Authority (FSA) and the Health Service Executive (HSE) recommend that all babies aged 0 to 12 months should receive a vitamin D supplement, with Vitamin D3 being the preferred form for infants. Products which contain other vitamins as well as Vitamin D, such as multivitamins, should not be used.

Vitamin D and Covid-19

In April last year, TILDA (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing) released new research that said Vitamin D could help fight off Covid-19.

Their press release said:

“New TILDA research highlights the key role of Vitamin D in the body’s immune response to fight infection, and emphasises the importance of increasing intake while staying at home/cocooning.”

Further to this, the study also disclosed that 27% of adults over the age of 70 who are ‘cocooning’ are estimated to be deficient in the vitamin.

The study found that Vitamin D plays a crucial role in preventing respiratory infections (such as Covid-19), reducing antibiotic use and boosting our immune system’s response to infections.

Some further key findings, which should result in healthy action among the Irish population, revealed that:

  • 47% of all adults over 85 are deficient in winter
  • One in eight adults over 50 are deficient all year round
  • Only 4% of men and 15% of women take a Vitamin D supplement

As the risk of serious illness as a result of Covid-19 increases exponentially with age, it is particularly important on the back of these findings to ensure you’re getting the right amount of Vitamin D if you’re in an at-risk age category.

It may be time to consider your own nutritional intake and see whether it’s worth doing the same”

Principal Investigator of Tilda, Dr Rose Anne Kenny, said in response to the study, “In one study Vitamin D reduced the risk of chest infections to half in people who took supplements.

“Though we do not know specifically of the role of Vitamin D in Covid infections, but given its wider implications for improving immune responses and clear evidence for bone and muscle health, those cocooning and other at risk cohorts should ensure they have an adequate intake of Vitamin D.”

While most people under 60 and in good health do not have too much to worry about themselves with regards to Covid, it’s always a good idea to ensure you’re getting the right balance of nutrients.

My risk of serious illness as a result of Covid-19 is very low as a 25 year-old, but I started taking a Vitamin D supplement this past winter in recognition of the fact that I was receiving next to no sunlight as I moved beneath rainy skies and tucked myself away at home. It may be time to consider your own nutritional intake and see whether it’s worth doing the same.