Vitamin D cured my joint pain and I will tell you how it works for me. Because it helps me so much, I want to share my story with you here.
What once was known strictly for its role in bone health, vitamin D now has a lot of evidence showing that it helps with just about every aspect of health.
In this post, also learn about the research-backed effectiveness of vitamin D for pain issues, including reducing inflammation in the joints. Overall, learn how vitamin D may help support general health too.
Related post: Sun Protection Foods + Supplements and Foods to Avoid
Table of Contents
How vitamin D cured my joint pain
First things first, I will tell you about my joint pain story. I had just turned 31, and my body was continually aching, especially my lower back or thoracic joints.
Too young to have symptoms of chronic pain, I was determined to find out the root cause of why I hurt.
About me: I was thin and in fairly good shape after having two babies, but my lower back really hurt every time I got up from sleeping.
My trips to the gym would result in feeling aches and pains all over for a week too, so my ability to exercise was also limited due to soreness.
Was this just me getting older?
My diet was better than the average person’s, so how could I be struggling so much? With some help from a very engaging nurse practitioner, vitamin D insufficiency was identified in my blood work.
To be precise, my blood level of vitamin D was less than 30 ng/ml, even after visiting sunny Las Vegas. And, I was already supplementing vitamin D3 at a dose of 2000 IU per day!
You should also know that I live in a cold northern climate where the sun’s rays are weak.
Addressing my vitamin D insufficiency to help my joints
By many practitioners’ standards, my blood levels of vitamin D would be considered fine because my levels were not technically deficient.
But I knew enough about vitamin D myself to know that having low-normal levels is a bad idea for many aspects of health, including joint health and immunity.
My provider started me on a course of vitamin D3 at 10,000 international units (IU) per day and rechecked my blood level in about 6 months.
Using vitamin D3 at this dose, It didn’t take long to feel a lot better.
By week 2, the increased dose of vitamin D3 made my lower back pain disappear. I was able to go to the gym multiple times a week and was feeling leaner and stronger.
My joint pain in my back was caused by a relative lack of vitamin D.
To this day, my pain remains gone after a decade of supplemental vitamin D. I also take supportive multivitamins and minerals because even though I eat well, vitamin D has a lot of cofactors it requires to work its best.
Vitamin D basics
Vitamin D is a nutrient and hormone that is essential for the normal functioning of every cell in your body.
Known as the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D3 comes mainly from the sun’s midday rays called ultraviolet B.
In one sun exposure, you can get your daily needs, as long as your skin is bare. And, as long as you aren’t in the northern hemisphere. Remember, skin cancer is a real concern, so use caution. However moderate sun exposure has more benefits than risks for overall health.
Vitamin D is also found in small amounts in foods like wild salmon, other oily fish, liver, grass-fed meats, and mushrooms. Food manufacturers also sprinkle a bit in foods like milk and cereals.
But, it is next to impossible to get enough vitamin D from food sources alone.
Vast roles of vitamin D in the body
Activated vitamin D functions as a hormone in the body. You should know that hormones have thousands of functions in the body. Vitamin D is a central regulator of many hormones in the body, including thyroid hormone, parathyroid hormone, and even insulin.
A deficiency of vitamin D can cause your other hormones to be out of balance, including the ones that control your blood glucose (insulin), your sex hormones, and even your thyroid and parathyroid hormones [R, R, R].
As a potent immune regulator, vitamin D helps the body’s own natural immune defenses too by making antimicrobial compounds in the body [R].
Impressively, vitamin D even helps regulate genes in your body [R].
And it’s easy to test your vitamin D levels too.
You can find out more about vitamin D testing and vitamin D test costs here, which is minimal compared to the cost of illness from vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin D can help with pain reduction
Muscles aching, body creaks. Your hip hurts and you can’t tolerate exercise because you are so sore and tired. You have headaches.
You are just getting old. Or are you?
Maybe you are deficient in vitamin D.
For people who have fibromyalgia, vitamin D helps reduce their pain. Research studies show that vitamin D reduces pain from autoimmune disease as well.
In other words, vitamin D deficiency is painful.
The deficiency of vitamin D itself may cause joint pain, potentially because it causes muscles to be over-sensitive. It may also cause nerves to be more sensitive, thereby causing many vague, nagging aches and pains.
It also helps calm down excessive inflammation in the body, which in and of itself can be painful.
Vitamin D deficiency is even related to more severe forms of pain from spinal stenosis, to headaches, and low back pain.
What’s the proof? Vitamin D has been shown to help both nerve and muscle pains, but typically at doses high enough to get the blood levels at an adequate range.
In other words, you may need to take more than 2000 IU per day of vitamin D for pain relief.
Using vitamin D as a joint pain supplement
While my results were dramatic, each person may respond differently to vitamin D due to many factors.
However research does support that vitamin D can greatly help reduce joint pain.
The following study trials dosed vitamin D for pain relief in the following way:
- For lower back pain in obese patients, an initial loading dose of 100,000 IU of vitamin D was given, followed by 4000 IU per day for 16 weeks. Note that these patients were vitamin D deficient.
- People with knee osteoarthritis had relief from pain and improved functional health and quality of life with 50,0000 IU vitamin D2 per week over a 6-month period.
- A study of 1100 women with knee osteoarthritis found that those receiving MORE than 2000 IU of vitamin D3 per day achieved pain relief.
- In people with non-specific musculoskeletal pain, high doses of vitamin D (150,000 IU) at baseline and at 6 weeks, resulted in pain reduction.
- For fibromyalgia, 50,000 IU of vitamin D3 per week over 20 weeks resulted in pain reduction.
Keep in mind, the dose you need should be established with your healthcare practitioner. Make sure that you have your doctor check your vitamin D levels at least every 6 months to make sure you are on an adequate dose.
Vitamin D and rheumatoid arthritis
Low vitamin D levels are related to rheumatoid arthritis and also the severity of arthritic pain in this group of people. Vitamins for rheumatoid arthritis should include vitamin D.
A review of 9 research studies of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, showed that vitamin D supplementation reduces disease activity and reduces rheumatoid arthritis recurrence as well.
Vitamin D myths
Myth 1: “I drink milk, I’m fine.”
Fact: Milk has very little vitamin D compared to the sun. Vitamin D is almost exclusively a sun factor. Each summer sun exposure (if your skin gets a little change in pigment) provides 10,000-25,000 IU of vitamin D.
In contrast, milk has only 90 IU of vitamin D per cup. It truly pales in comparison to the sun! Simple math would explain that you need at least 100 glasses of milk to even come CLOSE to what you get if you are out in the sun.
Myth 2: “I get sun, my vitamin D level is fine.”
This is also not necessarily true. A study of sun exposure over 12 weeks wasn’t enough to restore blood levels of vitamin D for women living in Thailand. However, sun AND supplements increased blood levels to a normal range.
Myth 3: “I take a daily multivitamin, I am fine.”
This is definitely false. Most multiple vitamins contain only 400 IU, which is not enough to budge your vitamin D levels unless you are a small child.
Desk jobs cause vitamin D deficiency
Do you work indoors? Or are you the indoor type? Do you prefer television over nature walks?
If so, you are almost certain to be deficient without supplements. The sun angles at 5 or 6 pm in the Northern Hemisphere are too oblique to give you much vitamin D when you get off of work.
Sitting at a desk likely also worsens your joint pain!
Find out more about sun exposure and vitamin D with a free UV calculator.
What is an IU? Vitamin D dosing demystified
One vitamin D IU is 0.025 micrograms of vitamin D. That means 5000 IU of vitamin D3 is 125 micrograms or about a tenth of a milligram.
If you supplement with vitamin D, 5000 IU, it weighs less than a couple of small drops of water. The units are deceptive.
A good sun exposure that turns your skin a different shade gives you about the equivalent of 4 small drops of water in weight of vitamin D.
A glass of milk gives you about 1 hundredth of a tiny drop of water of vitamin D if that helps put it in perspective.
One final point on this topic; over-the-counter D3 is more natural, safe, and effective than the prescription variety, vitamin D2 [R].
What about Vitamin D Toxicity?
Vitamin D can reach toxic levels but it is exceedingly rare.
For safety purposes, it is always best to check both serum calcium and 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.
The true marker of toxicity is not the vitamin D blood level, but elevated serum calcium.
For an in-depth review of vitamin D and the range of safety, visit Painscience.com.
Other Benefits of Vitamin D
While vitamin D is good for joint health, it has a lot of other roles in the body. Here are some important ones.
Reduces the risk of autoimmune diseases and cancer
Vitamin D directly interacts with the genes involved in autoimmune diseases and cancer.
This means that Vitamin D is able to ramp down the expression of the genes that trigger autoimmune symptoms and cancer.
Vitamin D also is an immune system powerhouse in and of itself. It makes antimicrobial proteins that help kill viruses, fungi, and bacteria where it is most needed.
Vitamin D also helps keep the immune system in check. Too much immunity is a bad thing. This is the case in autoimmune diseases.
How vitamin D helps your immune system
Multiple research studies show that vitamin D can change the ratio of T cells, especially improving T-regulatory cells, and therefore helps keep the body from attacking itself.
Most types of cancer seem to be related to vitamin D inadequacy. This might seem like a coincidence if it was one study. But there are now hundreds of studies showing that vitamin D at higher blood levels is linked to less cancer occurrence. The coincidence that keeps being coincidental?
However, clinical trials often shy away from giving vitamin D in doses needed to optimize blood levels.
Some studies show that vitamin D supplementation is very effective at helping reduce the chances of influenza and colds, according to the Harvard Gazette. It also plays a role in fighting other daunting infections.
Vitamin D for heart health
Your heart is a muscle that relies on a split-second demand for adequate electrolyte amounts for contraction and relaxation.
One of those electrolytes is calcium, which requires vitamin D. Without enough vitamin D, your heart pump may function at a lower-than-optimal level.
Stroke risk appears to be about double with deficiency. It goes back to the fact that vitamin D is a hormone, and as such, it helps regulate other hormones, including a hormone specifically secreted by the heart muscle called B-type natriuretic peptide.
Supplementing vitamin D also may improve stroke symptoms.
It also helps balance out parathyroid hormone, which contributes to cardiovascular diseases and inflammation.
Looping the conversation back to inflammation, vitamin D plays a substantial role in decreasing some of the biggest inflammatory components in the body, including NF-kB.
When it comes to inflammation, it is never good for your heart because it makes your cholesterol much more likely to deposit inside the arterial walls.
Inflammation negatively affects your joints as well.
Again, vitamin D acts as a hormone, exerting 1000s of functions. It has even been shown in some case reports of children with enlarged hearts to help normalize heart function.
Vitamin D helps improve vascular tone, and early research shows it may help in erectile dysfunction. That is a blood flow issue.
In adults with heart failure, deficiency seems to severely increase the risk of death; by 3 times, and sudden cardiac death goes up by 5 times.
I personally helped facilitate a research project using vitamin D treatment in heart failure patients. We found that vitamin D supplementation at 10,000 IU per day for 6 months improved the quality of life and function of people with heart failure. These patients also had improved lab values that are surrogate markers of outcomes, such as C-reactive protein.
While research is still considered early in this area, the results from a compilation of 465 patients showed improved heart failure outcomes with doses greater than 4000 IU of vitamin D per day.
How does this relate to joint health? A healthy blood supply to the joints is required for the best joint nutrient supply.
Helps prevent pregnancy complications
Using vitamin D in pregnancy may be the most striking area for change in health because, in relative terms, pregnancy only lasts 9 months.
A research group out of the Medical University of South Carolina found that women achieving higher blood levels of vitamin D during pregnancy, often by taking higher doses of vitamin D, had huge reductions in pregnancy complications, including high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, infections, and preterm birth.
Think of how many millions of lives this could help, and how many dollars it can save. I got a sneak peek at their newest research paper, and the new study has just as robust of pregnancy results.
Check out Grassroots Health website to learn more about the organization helping to reduce the burden of disease due to vitamin D deficiency.
How does this relate to joint pain? Pregnancy is a high-demand nutrient situation and amps up your body’s vitamin D requirements. If you are lacking vitamin D, you are more likely to suffer from pain.
Vitamin D may make your body leaner
When you start taking vitamin D your aches and pains may get better. You also might get more energy because of this. That might make you feel like exercising more and indirectly helping you to lose weight.
But vitamin D3 itself also may independently make you leaner. This is because the deficiency of vitamin D is associated with an accumulation of fat within the muscle fibers of your body.
Therefore, vitamin D may change the structure and function of your muscles, but also, when your levels of vitamin D go up, you may get leaner.
Studies using higher levels of vitamin D and giving it longer term demonstrate that vitamin D may help people who are trying to lose weight.
For example, 50,000 IU vitamin D per week resulted in weight loss, reduced waist width, hip width, and cholesterol improvement compared to placebo in obese and overweight women.
The vitamin D group lost more weight than the group not taking vitamin D.
Helps your brain work better
Vitamin D deficiency is repeatedly related to symptoms of poor memory. Alzheimer’s disease risk goes up exponentially with deficiency. So do mood disorders like depression and behavioral disorders such as ADHD and autism.
Higher doses of vitamin D helped autistic symptoms in a recent small clinical trial. It helps in cognitive function in multiple sclerosis.
It helps symptoms of depression, especially seasonal affective disorder. It’s one piece of the puzzle, keep that in mind.
Depression and anxiety were improved for diabetic women with anxiety when receiving 50,000 IU vitamin D3 per week compared to placebo.
But how does it work? I’m going to talk about hormones and inflammation again.
You guessed it. Vitamin D helps make the “love” hormone called oxytocin. It helps with nerve growth and is critical to making neurotransmitters like serotonin.
Think about the fact that you may take a medication that helps with serotonin reuptake. Without enough vitamin D, there is not enough serotonin. There is a missing piece in the puzzle.
The brain happens to be very susceptible to inflammation and stress. Vitamin D knocks down inflammation and stress hormones.
How does this relate to joint pain vitamins? If your brain is happier, you are more likely to be more active and lean as described above. You are also more likely to make better food choices, which provide higher nutrient amounts for your joint health.
A note about vitamin D dosing
While studies tend to use high weekly doses, it is much safer and more natural to give daily vitamin D at lower doses of the equivalent amount spread out throughout the week. Vitamin D3 is also much better than vitamin D2 typically due to fewer side effects and larger effectiveness.
Also, studies that showed benefits for pain always used more than 2,000 IU per day. Make sure to check with your healthcare provider about your individual vitamin D requirements.
It’s your health so you deserve to know. Your blood level needs to be at least 40-50 ng/ml on the 25-hydroxyvitamin D test. Disease risk plummets at the level of 50 ng/ml and your well-being can rise.
Vitamin D cofactors
Our bodies are meant to receive a diverse and rich supply of nutrients from foods and from the sun. Unfortunately, by recent estimates, this is a very rare occurrence due to food habits and soil depletion.
In order for the body to properly use vitamin D, make sure to get adequate amounts of the following cofactors.
Magnesium deficiency is very common and supplements of magnesium itself can help reduce pain. Not only is magnesium involved in vitamin D metabolism, but your body stores may also drop if you don’t have enough magnesium in your system when starting vitamin D.
If you don’t eat green vegetables and seeds daily, you run the risk of magnesium deficiency. Certain medications may also rob you of magnesium. Supplementation of magnesium, as well as dosing and brands, are included in my best heart health supplements blog.
Generally, supplements of magnesium at 200 mg to 400 mg are safe. Always choose a highly absorbable kind of magnesium to avoid side effects and for maximal benefit.
Vitamin K2 plays an essential role in skeletal and heart health. Yet, vitamin K2 deficiency is almost universal. For the general population, 180 micrograms of vitamin K2 is helpful and supports bone strength, along with vitamin D3. Make sure to get the pure and tested form of vitamin K2 called MenaQ7®.
Vitamin K2 may also reduce harmful calcification inside the artery wall.
I like the combination of vitamin D and vitamin K2 called Mega D3 and MK7.
Always check with your doctor before supplementing if you are on blood-thinning medication.
Zinc deficiency can contribute to muscle pains and cramps in certain people. This critical mineral also plays a role in the effectiveness of vitamin D in the body. It helps the strength of your bones and your immunity as well.
While zinc deficiency is less common than vitamin D or magnesium deficiency, the following groups run a risk of being low in zinc:
- Vegans and Vegetarians
- Older adults
- People on prescription blood pressure or diuretic medications
- If you drink alcohol
- People with diabetes
- People with low-quality diets
Does your diet contain mostly pasta, grains, legumes, and rice? Odds are, you are low in zinc. Keep your dose of zinc moderate if you supplement; large doses of zinc long-term can impair your body’s use of another nutrient called copper. This translates to around 10-15 mg per day.
Some conditions require more zinc. To find out more, read about zinc dosing at WebMD.
Vitamin A is required for the body to use vitamin D effectively. If you are low in vitamin D, you are more likely to have toxic effects from too much vitamin A.
The best sources of vitamin A are dark orange vegetables and organ meats. A popular way to get vitamin A in supplements is with a moderate dose of cod liver oil.
You can read more about vitamin A here.
Supplementing vitamin A requires caution: toxicity can occur. As always, check with your doctor before starting any new supplements.
Other Joint Pain Supplements
Turmeric is well-researched for its pain-relieving properties and is a safe alternative to reduce inflammation. Clinical research shows that about 1000 mg per day helps with arthritis pain.
Some turmeric absorbs well, while others have almost no absorption. One way to increase absorption is to take with piperine, a black pepper extract.
The best way to absorb turmeric is in the form of BCM95®, which absorbs over 6 times more than curcumin or with black pepper piperine.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin are likely effective in cases of mild to moderate arthritis. Glucosamine and Chondroitin provide the essential structural materials that are required for healthy cartilage and also promote a healthy range of motion and flexibility of joints.
According to WebMD, glucosamine for joint pain doses that are effective include 1500 mg once daily or 500 mg three times daily, either alone or together with 400 mg of chondroitin sulfate two or three times daily, which has been used for up to 3 years.
I like the Solgar Extra Strength Glucosamine, Chondroitin, and MSM. Why? It meets Good Manufacturing Practices and Natural Products Association, which exceeds FDA requirements for quality and purity.
Glucosamine vitamins as combinations are likely best when including vitamin D. Consult with your doctor before starting. Caution: these products are derived from shellfish. Avoid it if you have a shellfish allergy.
Fish oil can be an add-on to your vitamins for joint pain and stiffness. It is especially effective for rheumatoid arthritis pain. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil can reduce inflammation in the joints, reduce pain, and improve flexibility as well.
Fish oil reduced symptoms of pain in knee osteoarthritis as well.
You will want to take 2.5-3 grams per day to have the most effect. Bonus: fish oil is good for your brain, heart, and arteries as well!
Check with your doctor before taking fish oil if you are on blood-thinning medications.
Frankincense and Boswellia
Frankincense and Boswellia are both extracts from the Boswellia tree and are effective at reducing inflammation.
In addition, frankincense reduces arthritis and joint pain in as little as 5 days in a clinical study.
Frankincense also likely helps other inflammatory conditions like asthma.
Vitamin D cured my joint pain. While this is a bold statement, it’s true for me. Make sure to check your vitamin D levels regularly and achieve optimal levels of at least 40 ng/ml.
It is also very important to eat a diverse diet rich in nutrients. You should supplement with cofactors, including zinc, magnesium, vitamin A, and vitamin K2, when applicable to you, to gain the maximal vitamin D benefits.
Lastly, vitamin D3 is an important nutrient that should be considered a joint pain vitamin, but adequate dosing is very important to achieve pain relief.
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.
Disclaimer: The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body and is shared for educational purposes only. While The Healthy RD’s posts are backed by research, you are unique. So you must seek care from your own dietitian or healthcare provider. This post is not meant to diagnose or treat any conditions. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider before making changes to your supplement regimen or lifestyle.