This article was written by our Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood London Instructor, Dr. Marc Barton. Marc is a BJJ brown belt and one of the UK’s most qualified emergency medicine professionals.
A few years back I noticed that I was overwhelmingly tired, especially for a day or two after training. At the time I was also working 50 hours a week as an Emergency Medic and I attributed my tiredness to this at first. As the weeks went by I decided to get my bloods checked, just to be safe, and was surprised to find out that my Vitamin D levels were very low and that this was, at least partially, responsible for my tiredness.
After doing some further reading I discovered that I was not alone. In fact around 70% of people are deficient in this important vitamin. Despite having been through 6 years of medical school and having worked as a doctor for almost a decade at that point in time, I was completely unaware of this fact. Amazingly, after talking to many of my colleagues about the same thing at work, it seems that many other doctors were also unaware of this at the time. Awareness has improved over recent years though and this does seem to be something that is tested for more frequently now.
I have taken Vitamin D almost every day since then, in one form or another. Not only did my tiredness resolve but I have also experienced numerous other benefits.
What is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is not actually a single vitamin but instead a group of five fat-soluble vitamins. In humans Vitamin D3 appears to be the most important of these. Vitamin D is actually considered to be a steroid hormone and plays a very important role in gene expression, controlling the action of over 1,000 genes in the human body. It also controls an enormous variety of vitally important physiological functions.
Very few foods contain Vitamin D3 and the major source is UV radiation from exposure to sunlight. The UV radiation converts a type of cholesterol in the skin into vitamin D3, which is then converted into a more active form, called 25-hydroxyvitamin D, in the liver.
Boost Your Energy Levels
A mild lack of Vitamin D often goes unnoticed but is a well-recognised cause of muscle fatigue and general aches and pains. Many grapplers experience these symptoms and simply attribute them to the stresses of training, as I did.
One recent study at Newcastle University in the UK demonstrated that good Vitamin D levels are necessary for making muscles work efficiently and can also help to boost energy levels. Vitamin D is thought to do this by enhancing the activity of mitochondria within cells. Mitochondria are essentially the ‘power stations’ of our cells and are responsible for generating the energy needed for them to function properly.
The study looked at a group of patients with low Vitamin D levels and symptoms of muscle fatigue. Improving the Vitamin D levels of these patients improved their symptoms of muscle fatigue and their muscle efficiency significantly.
Strengthen Your Bones
Every grappler needs strong and healthy bones due to the stresses that it puts upon the body. Vitamin D plays a very important role in maintaining healthy bones by promoting calcium absorption from our diet and facilitating healthy bone formation and turnover.
A more severe lack of Vitamin D can cause serious problems relating to bone health such as osteomalacia. In osteomalacia the bones become weakened due to reduced density and sufferers frequently experience bone pain. It can also increase the risk of bone fracture and cause deformities of the bones.
Increase Testosterone Production and Athletic Performance
Vitamin D has been used to improve athletic performance for decades. It has long been accepted that athletes perform better in the summer months. A study on Russian sprinters in the 1930s showed that 100 metre sprint times improved in athletes that were exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Another study in the 1960s demonstrated an improvement in speed, strength and endurance in women treated with a single dose of ultraviolet radiation.
Several recent studies have shown that men with good Vitamin D levels also tend to have significantly higher testosterone levels. It is not fully understood why Vitamin D causes an increase in testosterone levels but it is known that the are Vitamin D receptors in the testes, where testosterone is produced, and experiments on mice have shown that those without Vitamin D receptors suffer from low testosterone levels.
The Ageing Grappler
If you, like me, are an older grappler (I am 40 years young next year), then you will almost certainly benefit from Vitamin D supplementation. As we age our body becomes less able to produce Vitamin D from UV light and a 70-year-old produces 4 times less vitamin D from sunlight than a 20-year-old.
Vitamin D also plays an important role in offsetting some of the effects of ageing. Each strand of DNA in our bodies is capped by something called a telomere. Telomeres are a little like the cap at the end of a shoelace that protect the shoelace from fraying, but instead of protecting the shoelace they protect DNA strands from damage. As we get older our telomeres shorten and telomere length is considered to be an excellent biological marker of age. Studies have shown that telomere length is longer in people taking Vitamin D supplements. In essence this means that people with higher Vitamin D levels are biologically younger than their vitamin D deficient counterparts.
The moral of the story is that if you want to still be grappling in your 50s, 60s or even 70s, then it is probably a good idea to make sure you are getting plenty of Vitamin D!
Other Health Benefits
Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with a wide variety of diseases including numerous different types of cancer, immune system dysfunction, depression and dementia. There is still much research needed to look into these associations further, but it is clear that Vitamin D plays an essential role in staying healthy.
Getting Enough Vitamin D
There are numerous reasons why people tend to be low in Vitamin D levels. Most people, very wisely, monitor their exposure to sunlight and wear sun block to reduce the risk of skin cancer. Unfortunately this also prevents the production of Vitamin D in the skin. People with darker skin pigmentation are also less able to make Vitamin D. Their higher melanin levels acts as a type of natural sun block.
The further north that you live the more likely that you are to be Vitamin D deficient. The 37th parallel north is effectively the last point where the skin can produce a meaningful amount of Vitamin D from sunlight, so if you are not taking any vitamin D supplementation and you live further north than this you may well be Vitamin D deficient. The 37th parallel isn’t as far north as you would think, it runs through Santa Cruz in California!
Being overweight can also negatively impact your Vitamin D levels. It is a fat-soluble vitamin and as a result is stored in body fat. If you have a large quantity of body fat then this means that more Vitamin D will be stored there and less will be circulating in your blood stream. In effect less Vitamin D will be available to your cells.
The best dietary source of Vitamin D is probably oily fish, such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. Vitamin D is also present in certain mushrooms and in some fortified cereals and milk. It can be difficult to obtain enough Vitamin D, even if you eat a lot of these foods and the easiest way to ensure that you are getting enough is by taking a Vitamin D supplement.
What’s the Right Dose?
The best way to check if you are deficient in Vitamin D is to talk to your doctor about arranging a blood test. I would particularly recommend this if you are experiencing unexplained tiredness, fatigue or any of the other symptoms I have discussed.
A dose of 4,000 IUs per day of Vitamin D3 is usually adequate to bring Vitamin D levels back to normal in adults that are deficient. After that a maintenance dose of 1000 to 2000 IUs per day is generally advisable. Your doctor will be able to guide you if you are found to be deficient, as I was. The optimum levels seem to be between 40 and 60 ng/ml and people with these levels appear to be generally healthier, have better energy levels and live longer.
The bottom line: if you are a grappler, you should be seriously thinking about either taking a Vitamin D3 supplement, or getting your levels checked.
Jiu Jitsu Brotherhood Recommends: Here are our recommendations for products and services that can improve your jiu jitsu and health. This is a short list since it only includes our top picks. For white and blue belts: BJJ Building Blocks - The ultimate fundamentals program for jiu jitsu beginners For those wanting progressive techniques: Flow Jitsu - Smooth-flowing combinations from 'BJJ After 40' Legend Mike Bidwell For those struggling to remember their techniques: Beyond Technique - concept-focused jiu jitsu program by black belts Nic Gregoriades and Kit Dale For those wanting a reference manual for BJJ: The Black Belt Blueprint - Nic Gregoriades’ bestselling book on the art of jiu jitsu