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Integrative Health
|fact checked

How Vitamin D Sufficiency Can Decrease Your Risk Of Both Diabetes & Dementia

Jenny Fant
mbg Health Contributor
By Jenny Fant
mbg Health Contributor
Jenny is a San Francisco-based mbg contributor, content designer, and climate & sustainability communications specialist. She is a graduate of the University of California Santa Barbara. An avid open-water swimmer, Jenny has worked for healthy living and nutrition brands like Sun Basket, Gather Around Nutrition, and Territory Foods.
older woman reading
Image by Studio Firma

Over the past decade, scientific research has shed light on the importance of certain vitamins in maintaining and improving our overall health. One vitamin that's gained attention for its role in brain health is vitamin D.

The link between vitamin D and whole body health

Vitamin D, which can be synthesized in our skin in response to sunlight and is also found in small amounts in certain foods, has receptor proteins located in neurons and certain brain cells. It plays a crucial role in protecting the nervous system, maintaining critical brain functions, and preventing oxidative damage to the brain.

Yet, an astonishing half of the population is affected by either vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency, and rates can vary widely based on race and ethnic origin. Vitamin D deficiency is particularly concerning, as it has been associated with cognitive impairment and dementia. Plus, there’s emerging research to suggest adequate vitamin D levels may ward off glucose regulation concerns, including the onset of diabetes.

A recent review of studies focused on vitamin D insufficiency and cognitive function in adults. The review included nine studies involving 69,643 participants with an average age of 53.6 years. It found that individuals with vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency had reduced executive function, processing speed, and visuoperceptual ability. What's more, five of the studies linked vitamin D deficiency to an increased risk of dementia.

In two of the studies, the severity of memory and cognitive impairment was found to be directly proportional to the degree of vitamin D insufficiency.

One study found that vitamin D supplementation can increase cognitive and memory function, pointing to the potential of this vitamin to combat cognitive decline.

However, it's important to note the research had some limitations, including the underrepresentation of certain populations, such as people from Africa, Asia, and of Hispanic heritage. The authors also noted that larger randomized controlled trials will be needed to explore the full range of effects of vitamin D deficiency and supplementation, as well as their connection to cognitive health in the aging brain.

Another new study1 looked into the effects of vitamin D on glucose regulation and diabetes risk. It found that adequate vitamin D levels lowered participants’ risk of developing the condition.

The best ways to ensure sufficiency

While we await more research, one thing seems certain: Keeping your vitamin D levels in check is essential for your cognitive health and glucose regulation, among other things. Here are a few ways to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D:

Get out in the sun. While sun exposure alone is unlikely to be an adequate source of vitamin D, (as one's ability to produce vitamin D from sun exposure depends on skin tone, location, season, and myriad other factors) it is one key source of vitamin D. Aim to get 15 to 30 minutes of sun exposure on your face, hands, and arms at least twice a week—just don’t forget that SPF if you’re in intense sunlight for longer than a few minutes.

Consider supplementation. If you're not getting enough vitamin D from sunlight and food (and most people aren't—learn all about why here), you may want to take a daily supplement to boost your levels. You can start here with a list of expert-recommended options that deliver this all-important vitamin.

Get regular checkups. Data is power! Regularly checking your vitamin D levels can help ensure they're at the right level for optimum brain health. You can ask your doctor to check your levels at your next visit, or test them from home using a kit.

While taking care of your vitamin D levels is essential, remember it's just one piece of the puzzle in maintaining good brain health. Engaging in regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, getting good-quality sleep, and keeping your mind active also play important roles in your brain and overall health.

The takeaway

The importance of vitamin D for our overall health is nothing groundbreaking, but recent research provides increasing evidence that it plays a key role in maintaining cognitive function and potentially helps prevent dementia and diabetes. This underscores the importance of maintaining healthy vitamin D levels, particularly as we age.

With vitamin D deficiency affecting a significant portion of the global population, it's critical to prioritize your intake, whether through natural sunlight, foods containing vitamin D, or supplements.

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