For as long as I can remember, I have felt like something is just not right with my health. I have a general feeling of malaise and lethargy that predated my veganism and seems to get worse with my age. When I get injured, it takes my body an incredibly long time to heal. I scar easily. I am susceptible to aches and pains. I sleep, a lot. I am constantly excusing my joints for hurting by saying “hmm, I must have just slept wrong last night.”
I avoided the doctor for many years out of fear and anxiety about what might be wrong with me. Around the age of 22, I started pursuing answers for my ailments when I experienced something I could no longer ignore. My muscles were constantly twitching, all over my body, but not a violent and obvious twitch–the kind of twitch that only I knew about because it wasn’t noticeable from the outside. This was when I discovered the term invisible illness. Things that are invisible are not taken seriously. I saw a neurologist for many months who kept telling me that my vitamin D was low and maybe if I just took this supplement, the symptoms would cease. I didn’t take him seriously. He suggested I had a rare disease–Isaacs’ Syndrome–which, at the time, had been studied very little. Over time, the symptoms disappeared. I chalked it up to stress and never thought about it again.
When I was 25, my health issues cropped up again. I had been running, hard, and my knees started to dislike me very much. When I was 15, I had my ACL reconstructed in my left knee, so it was a gamble any time I ran–which knee would hurt? The knee with the existing injury, or the other knee, which is constantly overcompensating? I would feel fine upon bedtime and wake up with knees so stiff I could barely make it down my stairs. I was referred to an orthopedist who said the words I didn’t want to hear: “You might have to stop running.” Being in pain all the time wasn’t worth it to me, so I did stop running. I also stopped eating well, and I started to pack on the pounds again. My blood pressure crept up, and so did my cholesterol.
Present day, the past six months have been some of the most physically painful of my life. I’ve been experiencing chronic hip pain that my doctor can’t figure out. Also, I’m 27, so when I show up with concerns typically reserved for the geriatric population, I’m not exactly taken seriously. I’ve undergone several blood tests over the past three months and only two things seem consistent: 1) There is inflammation, somewhere, but the location and cause are not determinable by blood (and so, an auto-immune disorder could be present). And 2) I have a severe and persistent vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common, especially in people who are vegan or otherwise not obtaining enough vitamin D-rich foods in their diet. It is also common among people who do not spend enough time in the sun, or people with darker skin. The typical symptoms include bone pain and muscle weakness. Vitamin D and calcium are very closely related: when vitamin D is deficient, the body cannot absorb as much calcium. When calcium levels are low, bones become brittle and susceptible to breaks, fractures, and disease such as osteoporosis. Higher blood levels of vitamin D are also linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression.
The test that is ordered to determine vitamin D levels is the Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy blood test. The standard range, according to this test (and there is much debate about this), is 30.0 – 80.0 ng/mL. My levels have been hovering around 15.0 ng/mL each time I’ve been tested.
This concerned me, because I take a vegan multivitamin, which I assumed was giving me adequate amounts of everything I needed specifically as a vegan. It turns out, my multivitamin does give me 400 IU, which is 100% of the daily recommended value. However. I have not been taking my multivitamin perfectly (in fact, I forget to take it quite often). Additionally, just because the vitamin contains 100% of the daily recommended value does not mean that my body is actually absorbing that amount. And, it can take several months to improve vitamin D levels.
Dietary vitamin D is primarily found in fortified foods, so vegans must take special care to consume vitamin-enriched tofu, soy milk, or soy yogurt, to name a few. It is also important for vegans to choose foods enriched by Vitamin D2 rather than D3, as D3 is derived from fish oil or lanolin. Exposure to sunlight is perhaps the best way to increase vitamin D levels–10-15 minutes per day is sufficient for fair-skinned people, 20+ minutes for people with darker skin, and 30 minutes for the elderly population. It is increasingly difficult for us to spend that time outside with our busy schedules–if your schedule does allow for some time in the sun, don’t forget sunscreen!
My doctor has personally prescribed me a once-a-week vitamin D2 supplement – 50,000 IU, to be taken for the next 12 weeks. I’m not saying that my vitamin D deficiency is the root cause of all of my health issues. I am saying, though, that as a vegan, there are specific needs to be considered for optimum health. Vitamin D is of specific concern, as is Vitamin B12–which can be obtained from the plant source of nutritional yeast. I will report back to see how my vitamin therapy is going. In the meantime: what are your experiences with vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin B-12 as a vegan or vegetarian? What works (and doesn’t work) for you?