Is Vitamin D Deficiency Linked to Allergies?

The sunshine vitamin appears to play a role in a person's immune function

Man blowing nose at home on couch
Not getting enough vitamin D can worsen allergies and asthma. Paul Bradbury/OJO Images/Getty Images

Vitamin D serves multiple important functions for the immune system. For instance, it acts to stimulate the immune system against various infections, such as tuberculosis, and may help prevent certain types of cancer, or even autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis (although, this is all still being studied). 

In addition, studies suggest that vitamin D may play an important role in the prevention of various allergic diseases.

What is the Link Between Allergies and Vitamin D Deficiency?

Allergic diseases of nearly all types, including asthmaallergic rhinitisfood allergieseczema, and even anaphylaxis have become much more common over the past few decades. This could be partially explained by the hygiene hypothesis, but some experts think that this is also related to vitamin D deficiency.

To support this link, scientific evidence shows that anaphylaxis to various triggers (such as foods, medicines, and insect stings) occurs at much higher rates in areas with less sun exposure (northern climates). 

In addition, asthma, eczema, and atopy have been associated with low vitamin D levels, particularly for people who have mutations in their vitamin D receptor genes. Also, vitamin D supplementation given to pregnant women significantly reduced the occurrence of asthma and other allergic diseases in young children.

Furthermore, research shows that vitamin D can activate certain regulatory immune system cells that prevent the release of chemicals that cause and worsen allergic diseases.

So a deficiency in vitamin D, may inhibit this regulatory mechanism, leading to either worsening allergy disease, or even as a trigger for allergic disease.

This all being said, it's important to not over-simplify the development of diseases, including allergic diseases, which are likely complex, involving both a person's genes and environment.

Instead, the big picture here is that a vitamin D deficiency may play a role in a person's allergies, although exactly how much, still leaves experts scratching their heads. 

Why Does Vitamin D Deficiency Exist?

Many studies suggest that vitamin D deficiency is extremely common, not necessarily to the degree that bone health is affected (vitamin D prevents bone diseases like rickets and osteomalacia), but to the extent that the immune system is affected.

The reasons for widespread vitamin D deficiencies in various populations are not completely understood. Many researchers attribute vitamin D deficiency to modern lifestyles that include more time spent indoors with less sunlight exposure, as well as the widespread use of sunscreen (due to a concern for skin cancer). Remember, vitamin D is made in the skin with sunlight exposure—so sunscreen and an indoor lifestyle will prevent vitamin D synthesis.

Diet may be another explanation for the deficiency. Vitamin D is an important nutrient, but is found naturally in only a few foods (for example, oily fish, cod liver oil, egg yolks). That being said, many foods are fortified with vitamin D, including breakfast cereals, milk, and other dairy products.

Still, even with fortification, many people still do not get enough vitamin D. 

How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?

It is not known exactly how much vitamin D is needed for good immune function, but most people in developed countries get enough vitamin D for healthy bones. 

While there is still debate among experts on what a deficient vitamin D level is, after a review of research on vitamin D, the Institute of Medicine reported that the vast majority of people have sufficient vitamin D levels when the 25(OH)D level (this is a simple blood test) is greater than or equal to 20ng/mL. The people most at risk for vitamin D deficiency are when levels are less than 12ng/mL.

Supplementing with vitamin D, though, overall is complex, as a person's individual level, and how much they may require daily to maintain a normal vitamin D level depends on a number of factors. These factors include:

  • skin color
  • average sun exposure
  • diet
  • whether a person has any medical problems (for example, liver or kidney disease).

In addition, it is possible to overdose on vitamin D, with the main side effect being kidney stones, so it is important to talk with your doctor before taking any vitamin D supplements. Also, while tanning beds and excessive sun exposure are not recommended for obtaining adequate vitamin D due to the risk of skin cancer, small amounts of exposure may be OK, like 15 minutes a day for two to three days a week (as suggested by some experts). 

Sources:

Institute of Medicine. (2010). Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Litonjua AA, Weiss ST. Is Vitamin D Deficiency to Blame for the Asthma Epidemic? J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2007;120:1031-5.

Mullins RJ, Camargo CA. Latitude, sunlight, vitamin D, and childhood food allergy/anaphylaxis. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2012 Feb;12(1):64-71.

National Institutes of Health. Vitamin D: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. 

Taback SP, Simons FE. Anaphyalxis and Vitamin D: A role for the sunshine hormone? J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2007;120:128-130.

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