Vitamin D and Lyme Disease: What’s the Connection?

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Vitamin D isn’t just a vitamin; it actually functions more like a hormone inside the body due to its chemical structure, which is very similar to the structure of other hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. (1)

Vitamin D is crucial for healthy immune system function, which is vital for Lyme disease recovery. Vitamin D levels are frequently low in Lyme disease patients. Furthermore, Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, can reduce the expression of vitamin D receptors on the membranes of immune cells; this may increase the body’s need for vitamin D. (2, 3)

Beyond its impact on immune function, vitamin D impacts brain health, mood, mitochondrial function, and sleep, meaning it may influence multiple body systems affected by Lyme disease. 

Read on to learn about the connection between vitamin D and Lyme disease, including four significant health benefits of vitamin D for Lyme patients and how you can optimize your vitamin D level. 

photo of sun shining through autumn aspen trees

4 Benefits of Vitamin D for Lyme Patients

Vitamin D offers four significant health benefits for Lyme patients. Let’s dive into a discussion of the benefits! 

Vitamin D Supports the Immune System

Vitamin D plays numerous essential roles in immune function. Proper immune function is, of course, vital for Lyme recovery. Here are a few of the ways vitamin D influences the immune system:

  • Vitamin D supports the innate immune system, the part of your immune system that elicits non-specific responses to harmful substances like pathogens. 
    • In the innate immune system, vitamin D supports the production of antimicrobial compounds, including cathelicidin and beta-defensins. (4, 5)
    • It decreases an immune process called “antigen presentation,” which can cause allergies when it is excessive. (6)
  • Vitamin D supports the adaptive immune system, the part of your immune system composed of specialized cells that target pathogens. 
    • It inhibits autoimmune disease development, which can occur when the adaptive immune system mistakenly targets cells and tissues within the body. (7)
    • It increases T-regulatory cells, cells in the adaptive immune system that help suppress inflammation. (8)

Vitamin D Promotes a Healthy Brain and Mood

The brain is filled with vitamin D receptors, suggesting that this nutrient is essential for healthy brain function. Cognitive and mental health symptoms, including depression and anxiety, are prevalent in people with Lyme disease; it’s possible that restoring healthy vitamin D levels in those who are deficient could improve cognitive and mental health symptoms. (9, 10

While the results of clinical trials are mixed, restoring vitamin D to healthy levels in those who are vitamin D deficient may alleviate depression and anxiety. (11, 12) The mixed results in clinical trials may be due to the different dosages of vitamin D and treatment lengths used. 

Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with cognitive decline. (13) Since memory, word recall, and other cognitive functions are often impaired in Lyme patients, restoring healthy vitamin D levels may be vital for improving cognitive function in this population. 

Within the nervous system, vitamin D also promotes the re-myelination of neurons. Myelin is a protective fatty sheath that normally should be wrapped around our neurons (nerve cells), helping them conduct electrical signals properly. The myelin sheath is gradually destroyed in some demyelinating health conditions, such as multiple sclerosis. Interestingly, there may be a connection between multiple sclerosis and Lyme disease. (14, 15

Vitamin D Enhances Mitochondrial Function

Mitochondria, the tiny energy “factories” inside your cells that make fuel for nearly every part of your body, can be harmed by Lyme infection. (16)

Lyme disease-induced mitochondrial dysfunction may provoke various health challenges, including chronic fatigue and mood disorders. (17, 18

Conversely, certain nutrients can help restore healthy mitochondrial function. Vitamin D is one of them!

Research indicates that improving vitamin D status in adults can improve mitochondrial function. (19) Optimizing your vitamin D status is critical to get your “energy factories” back online. 

Vitamin D is Crucial for Restorative Sleep

Research shows that vitamin D deficiency can cause poor sleep quality. For example, vitamin D deficiency is associated with shorter sleep duration and nighttime waking in children and adults. (20)

Vitamin D appears to influence sleep partly by regulating brain regions involved in the circadian sleep-wake cycle. (21)

Restorative sleep, in turn, profoundly influences your immune function and inflammation levels. (22) Without healthy sleep, Lyme disease recovery may be very challenging to achieve. Optimizing your vitamin D level may be one step towards improving your sleep and facilitating your Lyme recovery. 

vitamin D and Lyme disease infographic showing the health benefits of vitamin D in Lyme disease

What’s the Optimal Vitamin D Level for Lyme Disease?

“Vitamin D deficiency” is defined by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) as a 25-OH vitamin D level of less than 20 ng/mL. The Endocrine Society defines vitamin D insufficiency as levels between 20-29 ng/mL. However, both of these targets are too low to support optimal health. 

An optimal vitamin D level for Lyme disease recovery is closer to 40-60 ng/mL. 

You should check your blood level of vitamin D through your doctor or another healthcare provider at least twice a year. It’s important to check your vitamin D level at least twice a year because serum vitamin D levels can fluctuate throughout the year depending on where you live and how much time you spend outdoors.   

The Vitamin D “Resistance” Hypothesis and Lyme Disease

Emerging research suggests that infections may block vitamin D from interacting correctly with vitamin D receptors, potentially resulting in “vitamin D resistance.” (23) If this hypothesis is correct, some people with chronic infections (like chronic Lyme disease) may need more vitamin D than expected to raise their serum vitamin D level into the ideal range of 40-60 ng/mL. 

Please note that acquired vitamin D resistance is a hypothesis, meaning it is not a fact. More evidence is needed before we can confirm whether this is an actual physiological phenomenon. However, it is a fascinating theory! 

Until approximately 100 years ago, when synthetic vitamin D supplements became available, sun exposure was our primary source of vitamin D. 

How to Optimize Your Vitamin D Level for Lyme Recovery

Enjoy Some Sun! 

Our bodies make vitamin D from sunlight when UVB light from the sun interacts with a compound called “7-dehydrocholesterol” in our skin. 7-dehydrocholesterol is converted into “pre-vitamin D3,” which is converted into active vitamin D3. 

During the spring, summer, and early fall, spend at least 20 minutes outside daily with as much skin exposed (while maintaining decency!) as possible to encourage vitamin D production via UVB/skin exposure. You can also use an app called DMinder to help determine how much sun exposure you need to meet your vitamin D needs based on your age, sex, weight, and where you live. 

Note: I know some Lyme disease patients are nervous about going outdoors – that’s where the ticks are, after all. I have a lot of thoughts on this fear of the outdoors related to Lyme; I won’t get on my soapbox about it here. However, I will say that going outside is healing, not only because sun exposure helps make vitamin D, but also for various other reasons. So don’t let a fear of ticks stop you from going outside! Just be smart when you recreate in the outdoors. 

Eat Your Micronutrients 

Vitamin D doesn’t work alone inside the body. It requires several other vitamins and minerals to be metabolized properly. For example, we need to consume vitamin K2 and magnesium to properly metabolize vitamin D. (24, 25)

You’ll often find vitamin K2 combined with vitamin D3 in vitamin D supplements. In addition, supplementing with a bioavailable form of magnesium daily, such as magnesium glycinate, may also be beneficial for bolstering vitamin D status. 

Focus on Gut Health

The health of your gut (or lack thereof) may significantly influence how your body uses vitamin D, thereby impacting how much of this nutrient you need to consume to support optimal health. 

Research shows that certain gut microbes, specifically ones that make a compound called butyrate, may help activate vitamin D inside the body. (26) Antibiotics may reduce levels of butyrate-producing bacteria; this is a crucial consideration for Lyme patients who have taken extensive courses of antibiotics. (27)

In addition, impaired fat digestion and absorption lowers the amount of vitamin D your gut can absorb. So if you aren’t digesting fat properly, you may need more vitamin D than the average person without fat digestion issues.  

Supplement with Vitamin D, If Needed

Once you’ve determined your current vitamin D level via blood work, I recommend working with a functional healthcare provider to determine your optimal vitamin D dosage. 

Ideally, this healthcare provider will also account for your intakes of vitamin D nutrient cofactors (vitamin K2 and magnesium), your gut health, and how much sun exposure you get to determine your ideal dosage of supplemental vitamin D. 

Final Thoughts on Vitamin D and Lyme Disease

Vitamin D is critical for Lyme disease recovery. A chronically low vitamin D level may impair your immune function, brain health and mood, mitochondrial function, and sleep. In addition, the adverse effects of vitamin D deficiency on these systems may exacerbate specific Lyme disease symptoms.

Start by measuring your vitamin D level to determine where you’re at. Once you have your baseline vitamin D measurement, you can address the factors outlined in this article to optimize your vitamin D level and support your Lyme recovery!

Are you tired of struggling to figure out what to eat to support your Lyme disease recovery? I would love to help you! I am currently accepting new clients in my nutrition practice. If you’re interested in becoming a client, schedule a discovery call with me to learn more about how I can help you!

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