The Role Of Vitamin D In Immune Function
The body needs a variety of different essential nutrients for its many functions. Vitamins, minerals, and trace elements are what keep the body healthy and able to do what it needs to do to get you through the day. Without these vital nutrients, the body can fall ill and become more susceptible to chronic disease – and even early death.
Since many vitamins cannot be naturally synthesized within the body, that leaves the daily recommended intake of the vitamin up to how much the person consumes through food or other sources. Take vitamin D, for example. It’s a vitamin that can be synthesized in the body by way of sunlight, though it also can be consumed through food. But what is vitamin D, and why is it so important to get enough of it? Part of the answer comes down to the role of vitamin D in immune function.
What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D is what’s known as a fat-soluble vitamin. This means it is absorbed into the body through the lymph and transported in the blood by carrier proteins. Fat-soluble vitamins can also be stored in the liver as well as fatty tissues, as opposed to water-soluble vitamins, which are excreted out of the body and need to be replenished every single day. Because vitamin D can be stored in the body, it’s also one of the few vitamins that can build up dangerously if too much is taken.
Also called the “sunshine vitamin”, vitamin D belongs to family of compounds: vitamins D1, D2, and D3. These are synthesized by the body when it absorbs rays of sunlight, as well as through foods, and supplementation if necessary.
What is the main role of vitamin D?
The most important role of vitamin D in the body has to do with bone health. The minerals calcium and phosphorus are vital to bone health, but without vitamin D, the body wouldn’t be able to absorb them properly. This could lead to soft, fragile, and misshapen bones. One specific disease that can arise if the body doesn’t get enough vitamin D in early life is known as rickets. Adult rickets is referred to as osteomalacia.
Without strong bones, the body suffers in a variety of ways. In the worst case scenario, having weak bones caused by a lack of vitamin D can lead to fractures caused by something as simple as coughing. Not having enough of the essential nutrient can also speed up bone aging and increase the spread of bone fractures. This is because without calcium and phosphorous, the bones end up mineralizing on the inside, which makes them brittle and more susceptible to breaks and fractures.
How does vitamin D modulate the immune system?
Vitamin D is required for the immune system to run as it should. The immune system helps to protect the body from illness, but without vitamin D, that defense would be lessened, leaving you open to more frequent and worsened infections. But exactly how does vitamin D help immune function?
Firstly, it helps to promote an immune response when a pathogen enters the system. Since the nutrient acts as both an anti-inflammatory and immunoregulator, it helps to activate the immune system when it needs to be activated.
Vitamin D also plays a role in how healthy the immune cells are and how effective they are against pathogens. It does this by enhancing their function, helping them become as strong as they can be when a threat does happen to show up within the body. On a cellular level, vitamin D does this by focusing on the adaptive immune system, or the system that is built up over time and can create cells to target specific pathogens. By activating T-cells and improving their function, the immune system can have a better chance at fighting off a disease.
Vitamin D also helps the immune system because of its effects on specific cells known as antigen-presenting cells, which are in charge of processing and presenting antigens for T-cells.
A lack of vitamin D has also been shown to increase the risk of developing respiratory diseases as well as viral and bacterial respiratory infections. This makes vitamin D much more important to immune health, as well as overall health, than many may think.
How can you get more vitamin D naturally?
When the weather gets warmer and the days get longer, the best way to get more vitamin D naturally is by getting outside. Spending time (safely!) in the sun will help your body synthesize the vitamin on its own. Research has also shown that because vitamin D from the sun can circulate within the body for twice as long as vitamin D taken in supplement form, the sun is the best way to get all the vitamin D you need.
How much time you need to spend in the sun will differ depending on your skin tone and age. Younger people will need to spend less time in the sun then their older counterparts to get the vitamin D they need, and those with lighter skin tones will need less sunshine than those with darker skin tones.
Vitamin D can also be consumed through food. Some foods that offer the highest amount of vitamin D include fatty fish and seafood, mushrooms, egg yolks, and fortified foods. If the combination of sun and diet are not enough, taking a vitamin D supplement will also help to get all you need. When choosing a supplement, the best bet is to go with vitamin D3, because it is the most effective at maintaining levels of vitamin D throughout the body.
Vitamin D is one of those nutrients that has a role in many different bodily processes. To stay as healthy as possible, one must have appropriate levels of vitamin D at all times. Whether you get yours from the sun, food, supplementation, or a mix of the three doesn’t matter, as long as you’re getting enough to reap the benefits of this essential nutrient.