Have you . . .
- . . . gone for a walk in the invigorating afternoon sun this week?
- . . . walked the beach on the Florida Gulf Coast, soaking up the rays?
- . . . played tennis on a sun-drenched morning, working up a healthy little sweat?
- . . . felt a warm breeze and the gentle heat of the sun as you floated in a pool, sipping iced tea?
My trip to Clearwater, Florida is unusual for me. I’m usually hunched over my laptop, looking out my office window. Besides that short business trip to the beach, I think the last time I really felt the sun was a little over a month ago. Couldn’t say for sure, though, since I don’t go outside all that often. I’d like to, but sometimes my work keeps me holed up inside for days on end. For most of us, spending time outside and soaking up the sun is a luxury we don’t really have the time for. For others, like my wife, the sun has caused some skin damage and we try to avoid it as much as we can, by wearing clothes from neck to toe, donning a hat, slathering on sunscreen, sticking to the shade, or just staying inside. When we were kids, our moms were always shooing us outside to play, because, “It’s good for you.” Mom may not have realized it but while she thought she was just gaining some peace and quiet in the house, she was also helping us make Vitamin D.
What’s Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is both a vitamin - something your body needs but can’t make, at least not without help - and a hormone. Vitamin D is essential in a bunch of different processes in your body, like making sure the calcium in your blood gets into your bones to make them strong.
You can’t get Vitamin D in a cubicle
A major way we get Vitamin D, an essential vitamin that has a huge impact on a lot of diseases and health risks, is that our skin makes it when we go out into the sun. In our culture, we spend a lot more time craning our necks, looking at our phones than we do shielding our eyes from the sun. Many of us work jobs that require long hours looking at screens and typing on keyboards, often in air-conditioned offices with little natural light. Even if we do see the sun, it’s usually through office windows. Glass eliminates most of the sun’s ability to produce Vitamin D in our skin.
"Glass eliminates most of the sun's ability to produce Vitamin D in our skin."
I suspect that our sun exposure has gone down rather than up over the past decade. Work, smart phones, and sun sensitivity are not the only things keeping us inside. We also have Netflix to binge on, as well as the fact that, depending on where you live, there may not be any sun to soak up for much of the year. Parts of the Northeast and Northwest, where I've lived for the past couple of years, can go without any sunny days for weeks at a time, especially in the winter months. In Oregon, there are times when it wouldn’t matter that you wanted to soak up some rays. there aren’t any to be found.
No Sun? What’s The Big Deal?
Levels of Vitamin D circulating in our blood are dropping, and reduced sun exposure doesn’t help that. A 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the average American Vitamin D blood level was less than adequate between 2001 and 2004, down from barely adequate in 1994. Vitamin D levels were too low in 97% of African-Americans and 90% of Hispanics in that study, probably because people with darker skin absorb less of the sun’s rays and produce less Vitamin D as a result.
". . . people with darker skin absorb less of the sun's rays and produce less Vitamin D as a result."
Another study from 2011 showed that 41.6% of Americans had levels of Vitamin D below what's considered too low. 82% of African-Americans and 69% of Hispanics in that study had low levels of Vitamin D.
Why Do We Need Adequate Levels Of Vitamin D?
Over the past 20 years or so, there’s been a flurry of research about the benefits of Vitamin D. That research has looked at the effects of Vitamin D on bone health, especially in older women, past menopause, who are at risk for osteoporosis. Adequate levels of Vitamin D, along with estradiol and progesterone, are helpful in building up bones in menopausal women whose bodies have a tendency to hollow their bones out. Vitamin D helps calcium get into your bones to make them stronger.
Osteoporosis and it's little sibling, osteopenia, are the process of weakening bones. Osteoporosis is a major health issue that affects millions of women over 50. Vitamin D can’t solve this issue without the help of hormone replacement, but it is an important factor in keeping those bones strong and helping women avoid ending up with a broken hip, in a nursing home. What’s also become clear over the past decade or so is that the level of Vitamin D needed to prevent bone weakening is higher than we once thought.
Vitamin D has been studied in relation to colon cancer, as well as other types of cancers. There's some evidence that Vitamin D helps prevent cancer and helps stop the metastasis or spreading of existing cancers, especially colon, prostate, and pancreatic cancer, as well as breast cancer.*
Vitamin D has shown some promise for its anti-inflammatory properties, especially in relation to the inflammation that occurs with certain diseases like multiple sclerosis and heart disease.*
We’re All Going To Die - Someday
Cochrane Review, a respected, independent group of scientists, looked at 159 different clinical trials of Vitamin D in Vitamin D Supplementation for Prevention of Mortality in Adults. The overall result of these trials was that older people who took Vitamin D were less likely to die than people who didn’t take it, especially from cancer.* Of course, we’re all going to die - someday. But Vitamin D may, according to the medical studies, help to delay that fateful day just a little. Most of us have levels of Vitamin D that are way too low to help us with any possible benefits. Low D levels may actually put us at greater risk for a bunch of health issues.
How Do I Know If My Vitamin D Level Is Low?
There’s a very simple test for Vitamin D levels. It’s called a 25-OH-D blood test and your doctor can easily order one to determine if your Vitamin D level needs to be increased. If you don’t have a doctor, you can order one for yourself, using a simple at home test that involves a nearly pain free finger prick to get a blood drop that you send to a lab on a little card. Here are links to a couple of websites that sell inexpensive 25-OH-D tests:
Grassroots Health also has a Vitamin D research project they'll invite you to participate in when you order a test. They'll take the data from your test, anonymously of course, and compile it with Vitamin D data from others to learn more about the impact Vitamin D levels and supplementation have on several different health issues. The study’s totally optional, but I'd recommend that you pitch in and help out.
What’s An Adequate Vitamin D Level?
Vitamin D levels are easy to measure. When you get your report back from the lab about your 25-OH-D levels are listed in terms of nanograms (ng) per milliliter (ml) or ng/ml. Shoot for a Vitamin D number of 30 or higher! Levels of 30ng/ml are at the very low end of what’s acceptable. Vitamin D can’t really protect you from osteoporosis, cancer, inflammation, or heart disease if your levels are much below about 45-50ng/ml. You probably won’t want to go any higher than 100ng/ml for safety reasons. Too high of Vitamin D levels can lead to kidney stones. If your level’s below 20, you really need more. I’d recommend you test your levels, increase your Vitamin D intake, then test levels again after 6 months or so.
What Are Some Practical Vitamin D Sources?
You can get Vitamin D from food, but it’s going to take a lot!
It’s a common recommendation that makes a lot of sense. The best way to get all your nutrients and vitamins is from eating a balanced, healthy diet, right? Get all your vitamins from your food.
I totally agree with that sentiment. I’m not much of a supplement person. I try to eat a lot of vegetables and fruit, cut down on meat and fat, and get as many nutrients as I can from my plate instead of a pill. With most vitamins, you can do that and get plenty of them.
Getting enough Vitamin D from food is practically impossible.
Unfortunately, "Vitamin D Fortified” Whole Milk has 124 International Units of Vitamin D per cup. You would need to drink 20 to 40 glasses of Vitamin D milk to get even close to enough to the Vitamin D you need for just one day. Whole milk consumption has dropped from 1 cup a day per person in 1970 to 0.2 cups a day per person, mostly because people don’t want the fat and calories in milk.
If you drank 30 cups of milk every day, that’s an extra 72 grams of fat every day, roughly the amount of fat in 7 bowls of ice cream. I’m in a mortal struggle with a dairy cooperative from the Oregon Coast, who makes the most amazing ice cream in the Northwest. Sometimes I win the battle and sometimes I go home with a pint. If I ate 7 bowls a day, I’d have much bigger problems than low Vitamin D!
Like a lot of people, my wife and I have (mostly) switched from cow's milk to almond milk, mainly because it contains nearly the same amount of protein as cow’s milk, but with a lot less fat. Even though almond milk is also fortified with Vitamin D, you’d still need to drink 20 to 40 glasses a day to get enough.
Salmon is one of the best sources of Vitamin D, since has 400 to 800 international units per serving. But you could only get enough Vitamin D from eating 2 to 6 servings of salmon every day. I love salmon and we have it as often as we can. In spite of that, 2-6 servings of salmon a day is going to get old pretty fast. No matter how you slice your salmon, relying on food sources is clearly not going to give us enough Vitamin D.
Get more exposure to the sun
A free and fun way to get Vitamin D is to spend 15 to 30 minutes in the sun daily, without sunscreen and with a minimum of clothes on. For most people, you’ll want the sun on your body not your face. The most optimal times to get Vitamin D are midday, between 10 and 2, when the sun is highest. Getting sun can be fun! Gardening, hiking, biking, going to the park with kids or grandkids, swimming, walking, lunch outside, even outdoor music, craft, or nature festivals are all enjoyable ways to soak up the rays.
There’s even a Vitamin D app for your smartphone (iPhone or Android) that shows you when the best time is, in your area, to get out and enjoy the Vitamin D making process. The D Minder iPhone app even offers the opportunity to join the Grassroots Vitamin D study.
Vitamin D Supplements
For those of us who don’t have the time to go to an outdoor festival every afternoon or who can’t afford to eat the equivalent of 7 servings of ice cream every day, Vitamin D supplements are the only practical way to increase Vitamin D.
How much should I take?
The widely published recommended daily allowance for Vitamin D is 600 units per day. The research says that 600 units per day won't increase your Vitamin D levels to where they need to be. You may need as much as 1000 to 2000 units per day to achieve adequate levels. 4000 to 5000 units per day is safe and provides plenty of Vitamin D to get you to those protective levels I talked about. My wife and I both take 5000IU every day. It’s possible to overdose, but the cases are extremely rare and usually involve accidental doses 1000 times higher than what’s on the supplement label or intentional overdoses.
Some supplements may have way too much Vitamin D in them, others have way too little. That’s why it’s really important to buy Vitamin D only from a supplement manufacturer who has a reputation for the highest quality. There are a number of reputable supplement companies around, but it might be hard for most people to tell the good ones from the bad. I recommend a company that makes extremely high quality supplements called Nutrascriptives.
If your Vitamin D level's below 20ng/ml or if you don't know where your levels is, then you need a higher dose, 5000IU of Vitamin D3 per day. Start with Vitamin D3 5000IU for maximum benefit. 5000IU of D3 if you haven't been taking D at all, then get your levels checked after a few months.
If your D3 level is between 20ng/ml and 30ng/ml, I recommend a lower dose of Vitamin D3 1000IU.
There’s no time to waste and nothing to lose, except the opportunity to start getting the right level of Vitamin D in your system.
Get your level checked after a few months and adjust accordingly.
*None of these statements have been evaluated by the FDA. The Vitamin D research I’m citing here does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on exclusively for treatment of any disease or condition. Talk with your doctor before making any major changes or decisions regarding your health.