I thought my back pain and exhaustion were normal, until I discovered I had a serious vitamin deficiency

Your vitamin D level is one of those things most of us don’t think about, but let me tell you, once you figure out that you have a vitamin D deficiency and start taking supplements, it’s 100% life-changing. About a year ago I started noticing some stuff happening in my body; mainly, I was constantly exhausted, kind of in a funk mood-wise, I was getting winded walking up one flight of stairs, having trouble falling asleep and, the worst part, my lower-back pain was at a level of terrible I hadn’t previously experienced.So what was wrong with me?

Well, after much totally unqualified WebMD research, I decided that I was probably dying… you know, a very typical prognosis when you go down the black hole of Googling “Why am I always tired?” and “Why do I feel awful all the time?”

I had a scheduled yearly gynecologist appointment coming up anyway, so I figured while I was there I’d ask her about my symptoms and maybe do some blood work if she had concerns. Well, turns out that my vitamin D levels were so low that she was “very concerned” and told me that I needed to immediately start taking 5,000 IUs per day of a vitamin D supplement.

Naturally, I went into a panic. She told me not to worry too much (but also, be worried), because most people are low in vitamin D. Just not as low as I was.

I immediately asked her what causes such a deficiency and she replied, “Typically, a lack of sun exposure.” There you have it. I’m extremely fair-skinned and have a family history of skin cancer. Because of these two things, I’m pretty much always covered head-to-toe in SPF 30 or higher.

Her plan was to have me take the supplements for a year and then we would re-test and assess whether or not I’d have to start taking a prescription-level dose of vitamin D (5,000 IUs is the highest for over-the-counter). I followed my doctor’s orders and about a week or so later I saw a surprising difference in my health and overall mood: the “funk” was totally gone, my back pain, though still there, wasn’t as bad, and I was no longer getting winded going up stairs! Life-changing. And all for $20 for a year’s supply (I bought the generic Rite Aid brand).

The thing is, if I hadn’t told my doctor about these mostly just annoying changes I was experiencing, I’d still be just as moody and winded. Vitamin D deficiency is a sneaky little devil because the symptoms are often “not that bad” or just plain ignored. Here’s what I learned:

The symptoms of vitamin D deficiency:

Fatigue, eczema, depression, insomnia, inflammation, bone pain, frequent colds or flu, anxiety, slow healing of wounds, and more can all be symptoms of vitamin D deficiency.

What you should do:

First off, getting some general blood work done yearly isn’t ever a bad idea, just to check on your general level of health. If you have a suspicion you might be low in vitamin D, first go to your doctor and see what they say. “Ask your doctor for a 25-hydroxy vitamin D3 test to confirm your status. If your vitamin D levels are low, consider a vitamin D3 supplement,” says Dr. Chante Wiegand.

I also had a LOT of experts tell me “just go in the sun for 15 minutes a day with no sunscreen.” UM, NO. Just because you’re deficient in a nutrient that you get from the sun doesn’t mean you can or should put yourself at risk for skin damage or, even worse, skin cancer. Fifteen minutes is enough time to actually get sunburned! Don’t do it.

What should you do (aside from taking supplements)? “Incorporate vitamin D-rich foods into your diet, like mushrooms grown in UV light, cod liver oil, [and] oily fish (salmon, mackerel),” says Wiegand.

There you have it. Long story short: see a doctor first if you’re having symptoms, and then go from there.

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