Can a young, healthy athlete really have muscle (and other) injuries from low vitamin D? I heard that somewhere. Just checking it out. I don’t think it applies to me, but want to make sure.

Yes! In fact several studies have been done confirming low vitamin D levels as a possible contributing factor to soft tissue and bone injuries. For example, blood tests taken in preparation for surgery to treat sports injuries show that more than half of the athletes tested were vitamin D insufficient. One-third of that group wasn’t just vitamin D insufficient — they were in the deficient zone. And maybe that’s why they injured themselves in the first place.

Several individual studies of National Football League players also showed lower levels of vitamin D (if not insufficient levels) among players with muscle injuries. And a study of elite Australian gymnasts came up with the same findings.

Without adequate levels of vitamin D in the blood stream, anyone (young, old, althetic or not) can suffer low bone mass, decreased immune function, and altered physical performance. Any of those (and especially all in combination) can pose serious problems for athletes.

Bone fractures and muscle injuries associated with low vitamin D can sideline athletes for an entire season. Frequent colds, flus, and other more serious illnesses from a compromised immune system can lead to days without practice and poor performance. The athlete may not miss a day but still isn’t at the “top of their game” so-to-speak.

Before anything can be done about low vitamin D, it is essential to know what your vitamin D levels are. This can be done with a simple blood test. But that’s where simplicity ends because experts say there is no clearly known optimal level of vitamin D to shoot for. Right now, the various levels are determined by measuring total serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D3) and defined as:

Deficient: 25(OH)D3 is less than 20 ng/mL
Insufficient: level is 20 to 31 ng/mL
Intoxication: blood levels are higher than 150 ng/mL
Sufficient: at least 30 ng/mL up to 50 ng/mL

Having “sufficient” blood levels of vitamin D means the body can absorb calcium from our diet to keep bones healthy. And sufficient levels prevent the cascade of biologic events that occur in the body when vitamin D drops too low. For athletes, the end-result can be protection from stress fractures, bone fractures, and soft tissue injuries of muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Not everyone needs to rush out and start taking Vitamin D supplements. Treatment should be applied to those individuals with low (insufficient or deficient) vitamin D. Taking large (supraphysiologic) doses of Vitamin D supplements is NOT recommended as a way to enhance athletic performance. There are an equal number of studies that show higher levels of vitamin D could lead to kidney (and other tissue) damage.

Before doing anything, ask your doctor what you need to do (if anything) at this time. Even in a young and healthy athlete, a blood test to establish your current (baseline) level of vitamin D may not be a bad idea. He or she will know if this is appropriate for you based on your level of risk factors.