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Infectious Diseases

Updated 12 May 2020

Low vitamin D levels and Covid-19 - what researchers found

A study has found a correlation between low vitamin D levels and coronavirus-related deaths in 20 European countries.

As researchers try to put the SARS-CoV-2 puzzle together, they find more information on what has been causing Covid-19 deaths.

A new study has found a link between low average levels of vitamin D and higher numbers of more serious Covid-19 cases, and deaths across 20 European countries, according to a news release.

The study was published in the journal Aging Clinical and Experimental and the research was lead by Dr Lee Smith of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and Mr Petre Cristian Ilie, lead urologist of Queen Elizabeth Hospital King's Lynn NHS Foundation Trust.

What is the role of vitamin D?

Vitamin D, the vitamin we naturally obtain from sunlight, is used to keep the response of our white blood cells in check. When our white blood cells are out of control, they release an overreaction from the immune system, known as the dreaded cytokine storm that Health24 reported on in April 2020. 

This cytokine storm is known to cause serious complications such as organ failure, which can ultimately be fatal.

There were previous observational studies that reported a correlation between lower levels of vitamin D and a bigger possibility of contracting acute respiratory tract infections.

We know through available data that Italy and Spain were two European countries that reported a high number of Covid-19 deaths. This new study now shows that people in these countries have lower vitamin D levels than other countries in northern Europe.

The researchers say that this is partly because people in Southern Europe, specifically the elderly, tend to avoid exposure to strong sunlight.

In Northern Europe, people tend to consume more cod liver oil and vitamin D supplements and tend not to avoid the sun as much. The researchers noted that Scandinavians are among the European nations with the lowest mortality rates.

Dr Lee Smith, Reader in Physical Activity and Public Health at Anglia Ruskin University, stated that they found a significant crude relationship between the average vitamin D levels and the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

"Vitamin D has been shown to protect against acute respiratory infections, and older adults, the group most deficient in vitamin D, are also the ones most seriously affected by Covid-19.

"A previous study found that 75% of people in institutions, such as hospitals and care homes, were severely deficient in vitamin D. We suggest it would be advisable to perform dedicated studies looking at vitamin D levels in Covid-19 patients with different degrees of disease severity," he said.

Should we start taking vitamin D supplements?

Mr Petre Cristian Ilie, lead urologist of Queen Elizabeth Hospital King's Lynn NHS Foundation Trust, said it’s important to note that their study did have limitations, as the number of cases in each country can be attributed to several factors, as there were different measures taken to curb infection.

“Correlation does not necessarily mean causation,” he said.

This indicates that it’s perhaps not wise to rush out and stock up on vitamin D supplements, as this won’t necessarily lower your risk of developing serious Covid-19 symptoms. And as with any vitamin supplement, there can be side-effects, especially if you don't take the correct dose. 

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