There’s a lot of buzz these days about vitamin D and with good reason. This fat-soluble superstar nutrient boasts benefits ranging from fighting cancer and boosting autoimmune function to helping with depression and improving cardiovascular health. It also plays a critical role in absorbing calcium and phosphorous into the body. Much more than just a vitamin, it acts as a neuro-regulating hormone, which affects hundreds of genes throughout the body. It’s the only vitamin that gets converted to a hormone and is so important to our health that there is a receptor for it in every single cell in the human body.
The Importance of Vitamin D
You’ve probably heard that vitamin D helps keep teeth and bones strong—which is true. But, there are many other reasons to ensure your body is getting enough of this essential nutrient. If you want to keep cancer, heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis at bay, you’ll need to make sure you’re not deficient. Vitamin D also improves balance and muscle control, oral health, lungs and airways, brain health, and eye function.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Healthcare professionals agree that more than half of all Americans are not getting nearly enough Vitamin D. Low levels are linked to depression, dementia, various cancers, diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, heart disease, fatal strokes, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, and many other diseases. Other conditions that benefit from vitamin D include asthma, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, autism, and kidney disease.
Getting Enough of This Important Nutrient
Our ancestors spent a great deal of time outdoors with bare skin and no sunscreen, but for most of us, this just isn’t feasible. If you exposed your skin to the midday sun for 10-30 minutes everyday—with no sunscreen—you may synthesize what your body needs. However, for those of us living in cooler climates, it becomes exceedingly difficult to get enough vitamin D from the sun alone.
Who is Most at Risk?
In northern latitudes, the northern half of the U.S. for example, the sun doesn’t contain enough UVB rays in the winter for natural production of vitamin D. Individuals who are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, depression or other mental illnesses usually benefit greatly from year-round D3 supplementation with an increased dose during the winter.
The lighter your skin, the less time it takes to soak up enough UVB during the warmer months. People with darker skin can take up to three times longer to synthesize adequate vitamin D. As we age, our skin loses a substantial amount of the substance we convert into vitamin D and the conversion process slows significantly. Lastly, people who are overweight tend to have lower levels of vitamin D as well.
When enjoying the sun in warmer months, you’ll need to get exposure before applying sunscreen as these products block the very UVB rays your body needs to synthesize vitamin D.
Why You Need Cholesterol
When you expose your bare skin to the sun with adequate UVB rays, the cholesterol in your skin reacts to the UVB rays by converting another substance in your skin, 7-dehydrocholesterol, to vitamin D3 sulfate. The D sulfate is further processed by the liver to produce a biologically active form of vitamin D (calcidiol). From here, it gets stored in fat cells or, if you have adequate supplies, the rest is sent to the kidneys to be converted into yet another substance (calcitriol), which regulates your blood calcium level. If there is still D3 in your system after all this, the rest is used to fight cancer and other diseases and improve your health in innumerable ways. Unless you have ample levels of this nutrient, you will not fully benefit from all the disease fighting and other health benefits of D3.
Since natural foods that are high in vitamin D3 are also inherently high in cholesterol, people who take cholesterol-lowering drugs are at a greater risk for deficiency as these drugs inhibit vitamin D synthesis. Without cholesterol, the body couldn’t make its own vitamin D or any other hormones. It’s unfortunate that it has developed a bad reputation considering that every cell in the body is made of cholesterol. The truth is that our bodies could not survive without this important substance.
How Can You Know if You Need More Vitamin D3?
Unlike other nutrients, it’s almost impossible to get adequate vitamin D from your diet alone. Some products—such as orange juice and milk—are often “enriched” with vitamin D. However, the vitamin D2 used to fortify these foods is not well absorbed by the body. The amount also falls to far short of meeting your daily need. A few foods such as cod liver oil, salmon, and mackerel offer a substantial dose of D3. Other foods, such as eggs and tuna, contain some vitamin D, but not nearly as much. Most of us need to supplement vitamin D for proper health.
What Types of Vitamin D is Best?
There was a time when the differences between D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol) were not fully understood, but now we know that D2 is about 300% more effective than plant-based D2.
Vitamin D2 is made by irradiating plants, often mushrooms, causing them to increase the amount of some nutrients. D2 is used to fortify foods, but is not easily absorbed. D3, which comes from the fat of lamb’s wool, is much more bioavailable. While vegans will want to avoid D3, everyone should seek it out.
How Much Do I Need?
Depending on how long your body has been deficient in vitamin D, it may take awhile to build up to healthy levels. The best way to ensure that you are getting the proper amount is to have a blood test performed by your doctor to measure 25(OH)D levels. It’s probably advisable to repeat the test after a few months of supplementation to ensure you are getting the correct amount.
Although vitamin D3 is not water soluble, you shouldn’t exceed safe levels unless you are taking more than 10,000 international units (IU) per day for more than three months. The vitamin D council recommends infants receive 1,000 IU per day per day, children take 1,000 IU per 25 pounds of body weight, and adults take 5,000 IU per day.
Vitamin D is a crucial nutrient, which plays a major role in our health. Since we can’t regularly rely on the cholesterol in our skin and the sun’s UVB rays to provide all the vitamin D we need for bone strength and disease prevention, we must strive to maintain adequate levels by other means. Considering that the majority of the world is deficient in vitamin D, most people would benefit significantly from taking vitamin D3 supplements.
Yours in Health,
Douglas Ferner Sr.