Upping your vitamin D intake has been shown to help with symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which is essential for building strong bones. Too little of this vital nutrient can lead to having thin, soft and brittle bones, known as osteomalacia in adults and rickets in children.

Studies also have found that a lack of vitamin D is linked to rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease characterized by swollen, aching joints, and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, scientists found that vitamin D deficiency not only is highly prevalent in rheumatoid arthritis patients, but it also is related to chronic pain and lower mental and physical quality-of-life (QOL) scores. Another study revealed that a higher intake of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids may be associated with better treatment results in patients with early rheumatoid arthritis.

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Are you getting enough vitamin D?

Your doctor can order blood tests to determine whether you are getting enough vitamin D, but here are a few more tell-tale signs of a deficiency:

  • Chronic pain and achiness that lasts for weeks, such as that associated with rheumatoid arthritis
  • Melancholy or depressed mood (though it is not fully understood, vitamin D may increase the amount of chemicals in the brain that treat depression)
  • Osteoporosis and brittle bones
  • Fatigue and weakness that doesn’t seem normal
  • Excessive sweating, especially on your forehead

“Maintaining an adequate vitamin D level is essential in the management of rheumatoid arthritis,” said Elizabeth Ortiz, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “It has been shown to help with pain control and may even be beneficial in controlling inflammation and disease activity.”

How can you boost your vitamin D intake?

If you suspect that a vitamin D deficiency might be aggravating your rheumatoid arthritis, there are several steps you can take to boost your intake of vitamin D:

1. Eat foods that have vitamin D naturally.

This includes oily fish such as tuna and salmon, milk that has vitamin D added, egg yolks and breakfast cereals, yogurts and other products that specify vitamin D has been added to them.

2. Take a supplement.

Many multivitamin tablets include vitamin D, or you can take a supplement. Liquid vitamin D is easier to absorb than in pill form.

3. Soak in the sun.

This is a tricky solution because you don’t want to increase your risk of skin cancer. But if you expose your skin to sunlight for a brief period daily, a compound in your skin will convert ultraviolet B radiation into vitamin D. Even sitting by an open window for several minutes can boost your intake. People with darker skin tones won’t burn as easily, but they also do not absorb as much vitamin D as people with lighter skin.

4. Take cod liver oil.

It may taste awful, but it’s an old remedy that works. One tablespoon contains as much vitamin D as three servings of oily fish.

5. Review your medication.

Some medications can block absorption of vitamin D. Research your meds or ask your doctor about whether your current prescriptions and over-the-counter medications could be a culprit.

Because rheumatoid arthritis can be painful, experimenting with the role vitamin D plays in your overall health may be a good option for reducing that pain.

“As many patients with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions are sensitive to UV light, getting the appropriate amount of sun exposure is often difficult, and high-dose vitamin D supplementation may be necessary,” said Dr. Ortiz, who also is a rheumatologist at Keck Medicine of USC. “It is important that patients talk to their rheumatologist and have their vitamin D levels checked.”

By Heidi Tyline King

If you are suffering from pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, make an appointment with one of our rheumatologists. To schedule an appointment, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.