When a 51-year-old Australian woman came into her doctor’s office for help managing her type-2 diabetes, one of her main complaints was muscle pain. Her legs would hurt after only walking one block. And on “bad days” she could hardly brush her hair. The pain was too intense.
But diabetes was not the only source of her discomfort.
Instead, her doctor found she was low in a vitamin that only about two of ten older people get enough of – vitamin D.1 After she started taking a daily dose of 1,000 IU of vitamin D – a low dose, in my opinion – on her next visit her doctor found that her “symptoms of weakness and muscle pain had completely resolved.”2
Not just “improved” – but “completely resolved.”
As anyone with chronic pain can tell you, that’s an astounding (and rare) result. I can’t promise most people will see that much relief. But all of us need to take a close look at what’s going on here.
How can vitamin D help you maintain muscle strength and endurance as you get older?
If you lose your muscle strength or function as you age, you put your health and longevity at extra risk.
If you want to keep your independence with the passing years and move around easily, avert dangerous falls, avoid frailty and enjoy a high quality of life, then you need strong, flexible, pain-free muscles your body can depend on.
For muscles like these, research shows you need vitamin D to help muscle fibers maintain their size and strength. What’s more, vitamin D can also relieve muscle pain associated with aging.
You May be at Increased Risk for Muscle Weakness
The latest research shows that up to 85 percent of older folks lack sufficient levels of vitamin D. If you’re one of them, you’re doubling your chances of suffering from muscle weakness as you age.
Tests at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, show that in people 60 years of age and older, muscle weakness is twice as high in those who have a vitamin D deficiency compared to those who get enough vitamin D.
Researchers looked for impairments in muscle “performance,” such as the ability to do things like get out of a chair or maintain your balance, and found that the risk of these types of problems triple when you lack vitamin D.3
Meanwhile, a review study by researchers at the University of Western Ontario that analyzed the results of 13 studies on people over the age of 60 shows that taking a daily dose of vitamin D between 800 IU to 1000 IU “consistently demonstrated beneficial effects on balance and muscle strength.”4
Vitamin D is one of the most important supplements you can take. I would venture to say that almost everyone, without exception, should take a D supplement, although the dosage is contentious (more on that later.) If you’re not already on the D bandwagon, I hope these studies motivate you.
Vitamin D Improves Muscle Signaling
To date, research has not explained exactly how vitamin D helps muscles, but studies at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research in Australia offer one clue.
Tests at Westmead show that vitamin D plays a crucial role in enabling muscle cells to communicate with each other – in a process called cellular signaling. When the vitamin D receptors in muscle cells don’t function properly, muscles shrink and fat tissue may increase.5
Along with getting enough vitamin D, one other important strategy for keeping your muscles in better shape as you age is to keep your weight down. Otherwise, inflammation linked to extra fat tissue can make it harder to keep your muscles strong.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
In an analysis of studies on older people who are both very overweight and who have lost a significant amount of muscle, researchers at Dartmouth point out that carrying extra weight around can lead to the activation of immune cells that cause harmful chronic inflammation.
The actions of these cells both accelerate the breakdown of muscle tissue and increase the amount of body fat that you put on in a self-reinforcing vicious cycle.6
Exercise is another important strategy for maintaining muscle strength—and a healthy weight. While the studies outlined in this article investigated people who only took vitamin D and did not exercise, exercise is still a confirmed way to build muscle.
The research found that regular exercise helps preserve muscle tissue and better muscle function. Best of all, you don’t have to be an athlete or someone who is already physically fit to benefit from exercise. Researchers found that maintaining moderate physical activity such as taking brisk walks and doing easy weightlifting a couple of times a week is enough to keep your muscles strong and working properly.
How Much Vitamin D to Take
The Dartmouth researchers recommend that people over the age of 65 should take 1,000 IU of vitamin D every day along with 1,200 mg of calcium.
Everything I’ve learned in 15 years of writing about this subject suggests that this dose of D is way too low. I take 5,000 IU of vitamin D every day, based on blood tests of my D level showing I need that much.
Any number of doctors and studies I’ve consulted suggest that the ideal blood level should be above 60ng/ml. The reason I confidently say everyone should take D is that almost no American tested ever has a blood level that high.
According to one doctor we interviewed, who has tested the D levels of hundreds of patients, she virtually NEVER sees anyone with a level above 60. But at the same time, the levels she does see vary all over the place, from patient to patient.
The only way to know for sure how much you need is to have a blood test. Then, if you’re deficient, you can start with very high doses of D – say, 20,000 units a day – testing regularly until you get your blood level at least into the 50s. Once you’ve achieved that, ratchet down to a lower dose, testing frequently until you figure out what your long-term, maintenance amount of D should be.
Fortunately, there are also at-home vitamin D finger stick tests available, although I haven’t tried them. I would have a lab test done first, to get a more reliable number, then maybe follow up with the home test, if you decide to go that route.
And about that calcium supplement the Dartmouth researchers recommend along with your D: I strongly urge readers to get their calcium from their food. I have a lot of doubts about the safety and efficacy of calcium supplements.
Whatever amount you decide to take, the evidence for vitamin D as an anti-aging vitamin is clear. You can’t successfully age without it.