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Vitamin D deficiency may be linked to more severe cases of COVID-19, two studies based on data from more than 20 countries found.

Researchers in both studies found that countries where people had lower levels of vitamin D had a higher rate of severe COVID-19 cases and deaths than countries where people had higher levels of the nutrient.

More research is needed, but this finding could help explain why some people are more vulnerable to complications from the virus than others.

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If you’re looking for ways to protect yourself against the coronavirus, new research suggests that getting plenty of vitamin D might help.

Two new studies linked vitamin D deficiency with coronavirus risks, suggesting that not having enough of the nutrient could mean people are more likely to experience serious complications if they are infected.

A lack of vitamin D could lead to immune-system complications, worsening the virus if you do get sick, one study found

In a preprint of a study published on April 30, which has not been peer-reviewed, a team led by Northwestern University researchers looked at data on coronavirus cases in 10 countries, including China, Iran, Germany, Italy, and the US. They compared this with data on the levels of vitamin D in the population in those countries before the pandemic.

They found a strong correlation between vitamin D deficiency and a complication known as a cytokine storm, which occurs when the immune system goes into overdrive, and a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and mortality rates.

“Cytokine storm can severely damage lungs and lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome and death in patients,” Ali Daneshkhah, a postdoctoral research associate at Northwestern and the lead author of the study, said in a press release. “This is what seems to kill a majority of COVID-19 patients, not the destruction of the lungs by the virus itself. It is the complications from the misdirected fire from the immune system.”

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Empty chairs on a beach in Guam in 2017.

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Countries where people get adequate vitamin D could fare better against the virus

Another study also found a link between higher levels of vitamin D and fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths.

In the study, published on Wednesday in the journal Aging Clinical and Experimental Research, researchers from the UK found that among 20 European countries, those with higher average levels of vitamin D had fewer coronavirus cases and lower mortality rates.

Italy and Spain, for instance, had higher mortality rates than other countries in the study, and both had lower average levels of vitamin D. Northern European countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden had higher average levels of vitamin D and lower rates of coronavirus cases and deaths.

Researchers noted that this study was limited in that it didn’t account for the level of testing and other interventions in each country.

More research is needed to understand exactly how vitamin D influences coronavirus outcomes

The second study did not look at whether increasing vitamin D levels could lead to better outcomes for coronavirus patients. But it’s a prospect that researchers are interested in exploring further.

“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,” Lee Smith, an author of that study, said in a press release. 

The results from the Northwestern study also suggest that vitamin D might help explain why some people are more vulnerable to COVID-19. For example, elderly people are at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 infection and are also more likely have a vitamin D deficiency, the researchers said. Children, on the other hand, may be less susceptible to severe cases in part because their immune systems are less likely to overreact to the virus and cause complications like a cytokine storm.

But no vitamin is a cure-all, and this is no exception. If you’re already getting enough vitamin D from sunlight, food, or other sources, adding more won’t help. In fact, getting too much vitamin D can have negative side effects.

“While I think it is important for people to know that vitamin D deficiency might play a role in mortality, we don’t need to push vitamin D on everybody,” Vadim Backman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern who led the research, said in the press release. “It will not prevent a patient from contracting the virus, but it may reduce complications and prevent death in those who are infected.”

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