You may have heard Vitamin D referred to before as the "sun vitamin." That's because it is the one vitamin your body can manufacture, just from exposure to sunlight! And it's an important one, too: the Vitamin D family of nutrients is responsible for aiding absorption of other critical nutrients your body needs to function, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and phosphate.
Now researchers have identified what may be another valuable effect of Vitamin D — it seems to protect the brain from damage by chemical substances called free radicals. And that has senior health and mental wellness experts taking notice.
Why it's important.
Have you ever heard of rickets? Though virtually unheard of now in the Western world, this childhood disease, caused by Vitamin D deficiency, is responsible for chronic bone malformations that can affect long-term quality of life.
Lack of Vitamin D causes low calcium absorption. Since calcium is needed for bone development and strength, a child's bones can become soft, bend and become deformed. In severe cases of rickets, they can become brittle and break easily.
The adult version of rickets, osteomalacia, can have serious consequences for older people and is often associated with an increase of traumatic injuries resulting from falls.
Without Vitamin D’s calcium absorption augmenting power, the body may develop a generally low serum calcium level in the blood— a condition called hypocalcemia.
Hypocalcemia is associated with muscle weakness and chronic pain. This is because calcium is also used by the nervous system as a conductive material; it is needed for the brain to properly transmit messages along nerves. When calcium is low, nerves can misfire.
If calcium levels are severely low, the situation can become life-threatening, causing laryngospasms — spontaneous contractions of the throat muscles that can obstruct breathing — and can even result in heart arrhythmia, which can lead to cardiac arrest and death.
Seniors are particularly susceptible to Vitamin D deficiency.
Many older people already have a reduced ability to absorb critical nutrients—a natural side effect of the metabolism slowing over time.
But a lot of seniors— especially those with reduced mobility or memory problems who spend the majority of their time indoors and shaded from the sun— face an exacerbation of malnutrition due to Vitamin D deficiency. Given that low Vitamin D levels have also been associated with Alzheimer's disease and even some forms of cancer, it is extremely important that seniors get an appropriate amount of sunlight and/or dietary intake of this nutrient.
Can Vitamin D really prevent brain damage?
New evidence seems to indicate that it can. A study published late last year by researchers at the University of Kentucky's Markey Cancer Center showed middle-aged rats that were fed a low-Vitamin D diet for several months developed brain damage. The researchers attributed the type of damage they saw in the rats' brain proteins to that known to be caused by chemical substances called "free radicals"— negatively-charged ions that can virtually shred fragile DNA molecules and cause healthy cells to either mutate into disease-causing forms or die.
The rats in the study showed marked degeneration in their performance on memory tests and in their ability to learn. This, according to the UK research team, would seem to indicate that maintaining adequate Vitamin D levels is necessary to protect the brain's cognitive functions as we age. It may be that Vitamin D can intercept and neutralize free radicals in the body, preventing them from damaging DNA in nervous tissue.
If that is the case, the implications for senior health and wellness are clear.
Your body needs Vitamin D, plain and simple.
Although deficiency is a common problem in the elderly, it is one that has an easy fix.
Just a few minutes (10 to 15) a day spent sitting on the porch in the summer and in a sunroom or in front of a UV lamp in the winter will allow a person to synthesize the Vitamin D needed to maintain nutritional wellness. Naturally, you'll want to make sure you don't overcompensate and sit in the sun too long (as this would increase the risk of skin cancers).
Talk with your primary care doctor, your geriatrics specialist, or a senior nutritionist to develop a plan to make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D.
Your brain is sure to reward you for it — with better long-term performance!