Large doses of vitamin D may protect you from COVID-19 — but it’s also toxic

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It has been suggested that taking vitamin D may protect people from getting COVID-19. But should we be using supplements to ward off the virus? We need to separate fact from fiction.

Vitamin D is essential for maintaining overall health, especially for bones, teeth, and muscles. It regulates the body’s stores of calcium and phosphate and helps us maintain a healthy immune system. While we can get vitamin D from oily fish, egg yolks, red meat, and supplemented foods in our diet, the vast majority of vitamin D in the body is produced in the skin due to sunlight exposure.

Vitamin D concentrations are lower in people with obesity, those with high blood pressure or diabetes, and those who smoke. It can be stored in fat cells, thus reducing the circulating concentration in the blood. Poor diet in those with heart disease and a sedentary lifestyle away from sunlight contribute to lower blood concentrations of the vitamin, while smoking affects vitamin D and calcium regulation.

These conditions are associated with increased risk of COVID-19 and the more severe forms of the disease. It has therefore been proposed that people with low vitamin D are at higher risk of infection or have worse outcomes with COVID-19.

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Northern hemisphere

Between October and April, most of Western Europe and the northern states of North America lie too far north to have enough sunlight to provide adequate production of vitamin D in the skin. Many people in these places are at risk of becoming deficient during these six-months unless they get increased levels of the vitamin from their diet or supplements.

At the start of the pandemic, the northern hemisphere was emerging from the winter months of 2019-20. Also, with the lockdown, many people were isolating or shielding inside with very little exposure to natural sunlight. This will have had a negative effect on vitamin D concentration, making some people deficient and thus compromising immune system function.

Italy, Spain, the UK, China, and some parts of North America all have a high proportion of the population with vitamin D deficiency. These countries also have significantly higher numbers of COVID-19 deaths. Other countries in the same region such as Norway, Denmark, and Finland have lower COVID-19 mortality rates, but higher levels of vitamin D in the population as supplementation and fortification of food in these countries are common.