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Vitamin D Deficiency in Chicagoans Could Increase the Likelihood of Contracting COVID-19 Research Suggests

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Low sunlight and resulting vitamin D deficiencies in most Chicago residents may place them at increased risk for contracting COVID-19 or experiencing more severe symptoms should they contract it.
Vitamin D deficiency in Chicago residents caused by low levels of sunlight could be associated with contracting COVID-19 or symptom severityThe Chicago Real Estate Local

The first winter living in Chicago, I went for my annual physical. All was well, according to my physician, with the exception of my Vitamin D level.

I was a bit concerned when she told me I had a Vitamin D deficiency, wondering if that was linked to something else, like a disease or illness that would cause chronic problems. She replied, that it was a common thing in the U.S, in general and in Chicago, due to the low sunlight in the wintertime, most people living here had such a deficiency. Wondering if perhaps she was exaggerating as it seemed surprising that most Chicagoans suffered from a Vitamin D deficiency, I looked it up when I got home. My doctor hadn’t been exaggerating.

Apparently, most Chicago residents have low vitamin D levels in the winter months. Actually, at latitude 42, which is where Chicago lies, the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough to trigger the skin to produce vitamin D3 between the months of October through March.

This is concerning as Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disease, tuberculosis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel diseases, cancers, schizophrenia, depression, cognitive deficits, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, cystic fibrosis, common obesity, burn injury severity, metabolic syndrome, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Now it's also been linked to COVID-19.

Vitamin D and COVID-19

Research suggests that vitamin D deficiency may be related to the risk of contracting COVID-19 and prognosis for individuals who contract the virus. An investigation conducted at the University of Chicago Medicine found that people who have vitamin D levels that are above those considered to be sufficient could have lower risks of contracting COVID-19. This relationship was strongest for Black people. In this study, those who were vitamin D deficient had a 7.2 percent likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19 while in a separate study over 80% of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 were found to have a vitamin D deficiency.

In a another study, a significantly higher rate of vitamin D deficiency was found in hospitalized patients suffering from acute respiratory failure. After patients had been hospitalized for 10 days, vitamin D deficient patients had a 50 percent mortality rate, while those who weren’t vitamin D deficient had a 5 percent mortality risk.

While the data thus far has not been conclusive, some researchers suggest this is because the levels of vitamin D deemed sufficient for bone health may not be enough to improve the immune system and decrease the chances of contracting COVID-19. They believe that different levels of vitamin D are necessary for different functions as far as keeping the body healthy.

Catherine Ross, chair of nutrition sciences at Penn State, has stated, “Vitamin D might be helpful in that there is evidence it can attenuate immune responses,” which could prevent the “cytokine storms” seen in some patients with COVID-19. On the other hand, attenuation might not be beneficial in terms of helping the antibody response.” In other words, the relationship between vitamin D and contracting COVID-19 or the severity of symptoms in those with COVID-19 may not be a direct response to the vitamin itself, but may be due to it’s relationship with other diseases such as obesity and diabetes that have been associated with COVID-19.

Researchers at Rush University and the University of Chicago are currently conducting two studies to determine whether taking a daily vitamin D supplement can reduce the chances of contracting COVID-19 or decrease the severity of its symptoms.

Most researchers conducting studies on vitamin D and COVID-19 agree that only large scale investigations with a large population of participants will be able to tease out the role vitamin D has in the etiology of COVID-19.

What Chicagoans Can Do to Keep Their Vitamin D Levels High in the Winter

Since the latitude of Chicago prevents sunlight from activating vitamin D in the skin for so much of the year, it’s important to take measures to keep vitamin D at healthy levels year-round. The primary way you can do this is by consuming certain food products. These include:

One way to stay healthy during the upcoming cold weather months is to eat the right kinds of Vitamin D3 rich foods. Examples include:

  • Fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines and tuna. With regard to tuna, limit consumption of albacore as it is high in mercury and eat light tuna instead.
  • Cod Liver Oil
  • Egg Yolk
  • Liver
  • Since few foods are naturally high in vitamin D, fortified foods such as milk, juice, ready-made cereals, yogurt, margarine, and other fortified food products are often the best food based source of vitamin D.

The other main way to keep your vitamin D at sufficient levels is to take a supplement. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has underscored the importance of using supplements to prevent deficiency saying that he, himself, takes a vitamin D supplement. “Vitamin D does have an impact on your susceptibility to infection,” Fauci said. “I would not mind recommending—and I take it myself—taking vitamin D supplements.”

Watch a Q & A sessions about vitamin D and COVID-19 conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago:

Vitamin DChicagoIllinoisCOVIDhealth

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