Vitamin D Deficiency in Children and Teens: What Are the Side Effects and Symptoms? - Public Goods Blog Vitamin D Deficiency in Children and Teens: What Are the Side Effects and Symptoms? - Public Goods Blog

Vitamin D Deficiency in Children and Teens: What Are the Side Effects and Symptoms?

As a teenager, I was moody, disinterested and overall stubborn. Sounds pretty typical, right?

three teenagers looking at laptop screen

As I grew up, I started to worry about my lack of energy and body aches. After consulting my physician, I learned I was one of the 40% of adult Americans who had a vitamin D deficiency.

The effects of this vitamin deficiency can be subtle and hard to pinpoint.

You may be noticing the traits I experienced in your teenager or child. Some of the effects of vitamin D deficiency in teens and kids are depression, irritability, and aches and pains.

If you’re concerned about the vitamin D levels in your teen or child, you may be shocked by how accurately this article matches your child’s symptoms.

Vitamin D Deficiency Is Frighteningly Common

It’s established that vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic in Middle Eastern countries and Southeast Asia due to a lack of fortified foods and higher skin pigmentation. Diseases associated with low vitamin D in children, such as rickets, are also common in undeveloped countries.

But what about in the United States?

According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH), vitamin D deficiency in kids aged 6 to 12 is still “very common.” In fact, a study from the NIH found that approximately 7.6 million children and teens in the U.S. have serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels of 12 ng/mL or lower.

Another study showed that out of 307 teens tested in Boston, 42% had some level of vitamin D deficiency. In fact, 26% had a severe deficiency.

In other words, even apparently healthy children who eat well-balanced diets may be at risk of this deficiency.

What Are the Risk Factors?

Vitamin D deficiency ebbs and flows with the seasons, with spring and winter causing vitamin D levels to drop due to a lack of sunshine and reduced time spent outside.

Other risk factors include:

  • Living further from the equator
  • Having high pigmentation, preventing sunlight from being absorbed
  • Frequently using sunscreen (although obviously that’s a good thing)
  • Staying indoors for school or work
  • Eating a diet low in vitamin D

Why Vitamin D Is an Essential Nutrient, Especially in Teens & Kids

Vitamin D is the only vitamin that acts as a hormone, allowing vital nutrients to enter the cells. As a result, vitamin D is essential to your child’s bones, brain, heart, teeth, lungs and musculoskeletal structure.

This incredibly crucial vitamin improves bone health by promoting the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, which makes the teeth and bones healthier. It also helps regulate cell growth and fortifies the immune system.

Stephanie Hodges, Registered Dietitian at The Nourished Principles, told Public Goods that other symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include dental deformities, bone pain, impaired growth, an increase in bone fractures and muscle cramps. She cited high screen time and low milk consumption as two major culprits.

Vitamin D is typically added to milk because it allows calcium to strengthen bone cells through absorption. It can also help regulate insulin levels and strengthen your child’s immune system.

Because breastmilk contains low levels of vitamin D, it’s recommended that breastfed babies receive an additional supplement. Formula-fed babies are less likely to need a supplement because vitamin D is typically added to infant formula.

Short-Term Effects of Vitamin D Deficiency

Chronic Fatigue, Lack of Energy

Chronic fatigue is a complaint commonly heard among primary care physicians. A general lack of energy can affect schoolwork, relationships and mood.

In the first randomized, double-blind trial of otherwise healthy participants with vitamin D deficiency, researchers showed that the group receiving vitamin D supplements reported significantly higher levels of energy than the placebo group after just four weeks of treatment.

Getting a Cold or the Flu Often

Does your child seem to get sick more often than normal? Sure, some kids like to play hooky, but their frequent sickness may actually be the cause of vitamin D deficiency.

Vitamin D has been shown to promote the immune system’s ability to ward off illnesses such as the common cold and influenza A.

Bone, Joint and Muscle Pain

According to the Mayo Clinic, bones cannot absorb calcium without the presence of vitamin D. The absence of calcium can result in aches and pains in your child’s bones, joints, and muscles.

Some may think that they simply need more calcium to deal with bone or muscle pain, but an unknown vitamin D insufficiency may actually be preventing existing calcium from being properly used by the body.

Anxiety and Depression

Vitamin D affects the nervous system and mood, especially in people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This study found that individuals with seasonal depression benefited from vitamin D supplementation and phototherapy.

A 2012 study analyzed the relationship between depression in adolescents with low levels of vitamin D, finding that 54 depressed adolescents were, in fact, deficient in vitamin D. Fortunately, their symptoms improved with vitamin D supplementation.

Rickets

While it’s all but eradicated in the U.S., severe vitamin D deficiency in babies and children can lead to a disease called rickets. Rickets is a bone disorder resulting in bowed legs. Other symptoms of rickets in children include curved spines, a pigeon chest, as well as skull and pelvic deformities.

Long-Term Effects of Vitamin D Deficiency

Osteoporosis

A chronic lack of vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis in adults. Osteoporosis is Latin for “porous bone.” According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF), osteoporosis greatly increases the risk of bone fractures, especially as we age.

Diabetes

Low vitamin D levels have been shown to increase the risk of the development of type 2 diabetes. This vitamin plays an important role in regulating insulin levels in your child’s body. Your child’s blood sugar levels are more likely to spike if they don’t have enough vitamin D. Over time, this increase can lead to diabetes.

Signs and Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency can be hard to spot in children and teenagers. Many of its signs and symptoms can mistakenly be chalked up to growing pains, puberty and the effects of an active lifestyle.

If your child is exhibiting one or more of these symptoms, they may actually be suffering from vitamin D deficiency.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Frequent fatigue or tiredness
  • Bone, joint or muscle pain
  • Frequent illness
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Weight gain
  • Hair loss

How to Prevent the Effects of Vitamin D Deficiency in Teens and Kids

If you believe your child may have low vitamin D levels, there are a few ways to monitor and treat this vitamin deficiency.

Get Your Child a Blood Test

You doctor can facilitate a simple 25-hydroxyvitamin D blood test for your child. Ideally, your child’s vitamin D levels should be between 40 and 80ng/mL. 20ng/mL and below is considered deficient.

According to Hodges, many physicians, including those at Johns Hopkins, are now calling for all children to be screened for vitamin D deficiency.

Just be sure to check with your health insurance provider first, as this specific blood test may not be covered.

Add Vitamin D to Your Child’s Dietary Plan

Vitamin D isn’t found in many foods, making it difficult to ensure your child is getting a sufficient dose.

Fortunately, over-the-counter vitamin D supplements make it easy to ensure your child is getting all the vitamin D he or she needs daily. The two most important forms are vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. While vitamin D3 is primarily found in animal-sourced foods, vitamin D2 comes from plant-sourced foods and is cheaper to produce.

The recommended dose of vitamin D intake for children aged 1 to 13 is 600 IU, with the maximum dose being 3000 IU. Children 14 to 18 and adults should take between 600 IU and 4000 IU, with the recommended strength being 2000 IU daily.

You can also add rich vitamin D-fortified foods to your child’s diet. These include:

  • Fatty fish like salmon and tuna
  • Shrimp
  • Cheese
  • Fortified milk, cereal, yogurt and juice
  • Egg yolks
  • Mushrooms

Get Your Child Outside and Increase Sun Exposure

Lastly, your child can get more vitamin D by spending just 10-15 minutes per day outside in the direct sunlight. Your child’s body converts cholesterol into vitamin D when UVB rays hit his or her skin.

Of course, the amount of vitamin D your child gets from the sun exposure still depends on his or her level of pigmentation. She may require additional time in the sun if she has darker skin. Kids in the Midwest may also struggle to reap the benefits of sunlight exposure because they are not exposed to it as frequently.

Too much sun is a risk factor for skin damage and skin cancer. Chemical sunscreen blocks UVB rays and mineral sunscreen blocks all UV rays, making a balance between receiving vitamin D and protecting your child’s skin from sun damage difficult.

Don’t Be Knowledge Deficient: Here’s the Takeaway

The best protection against vitamin D deficiency in teens and kids is daily supplementation with an over-the-counter vitamin D capsule. While your child can receive healthy doses from the sun and diet, it’s difficult to ensure whether that can provide a sufficient daily dose. In this case, the artificial approach is OK — and even encouraged.

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