Vitamin D is often referred to as the “sunshine vitamin”. It is estimated that around 1 billion people worldwide are deficient in this vital nutrient.
While this might not seem like a big deal, not getting enough vitamin D can create a many problems, and might require more time in the sun than people think. There are multiple benefits to ensuring adequate Vitamin D levels are maintained.
What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a steroid hormone made in the skin as a response to ultraviolet light. It can also be consumed through diet to varying degrees as well as in supplement form. The most common forms of Vitamin D are ergocalciferol (otherwise known as D2) and cholecalciferol (otherwise known as D3). When skin is exposed to light, specifically the UVB spectrum of ultraviolet light (outdoor sunshine at the optimal time of day and year), it synthesizes vitamin D from a cholesterol precursor.
Vitamin D is fat-soluble, meaning it is best absorbed in the presence of fat, and is also stored in fatty tissues and liver.
Benefits of Vitamin D
Vitamin D is best known for regulating the amount of minerals like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous in the body. In recent years, there has been much research into additional functions and roles of Vitamin D in the body
- Regulates bone mineralization and metabolism
- Controls the expression of over 200 genes
- Modulates the immune system and supports the immune system fighting infection
- Controls cell growth
- Lowers cardiovascular disease risk
- Improves fertility
- Assists in neuromuscular function
- Improves bone health
- Helps prevent autoimmune diesease
Vitamin D Deficiency
It is estimated that up to 75% of Americans are deficient in vitamin D. This is not surprising, considering modern, indoor lifestyles, obsession with sunscreen, and lack of nutrient-density in the diet.
Extreme vitamin D deficiency manifests itself as rickets, where bones grow soft and weak in children, and osteomalacia, the softening of bones in adults.
Two of the most common symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are chronic fatigue and widespread aches and pain throughout the muscles and joints. Further symptoms include:
- Tiredness, malaise, fatigue
- Frequent infections and catching colds often
- Back pain
- Slow or impaired wound healing
- Bone loss
- Hair loss
- Cardiovascular disease
- Cognitive impairment
Those at higher risk for Vitamin D deficiency include:
- Men and women age 50 or older – the ability to create vitamin D decreases with age
- Those who have limited sun exposure - long winter season or air pollution, homebound individuals, those always wearing sunscreen or having limited time outdoors between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm
- Overweight people, or those that have a higher muscle mass.
- Those who have fat malabsorption, live or kidney disorder or take medications that affect vitamin D absorption.
- People with darker skin – the darker the skin the lower the rates of Vitamin D production.
Getting Your Vitamin D
There are three ways of obtaining vitamin D:
Smart Sun Exposure
The safest (if done properly) and simplest way to get vitamin D is through regular exposure to sunlight. It is also the most fun, and can be convenient when paired with Paleo lifestyle activities and getting outdoors. 15 to 20 minutes of exposure on arms and face at least a few days a week should be enough for most people. Take care to exercise caution in the sun and never be outside so long without protection that your skin burns.
Sunlight provides a mix of ultraviolet rays including UVA and UVB. UVA rays deeply penetrate the layers of the skin and are the those that are often implicated in skin cancers like melanoma. UVB rays, in contrast, are responsible for tanning and the effects of sunburn, and only penetrate the superficial layers. UVA rays are not only deeper penetrating, but are present irregardless of windows, clouds, and foliage, and their strength changes little in intensity throughout the year. UVB rays have much less intensity, especially during the winter months when the sun is lower on the horizon. They also are blocked easily by glass, clouds, clothing, and other barriers.
The SPF factor in a sunscreen refers to a product’s ability to block UVB rays, but not the deeper penetrating, cancer-causing UVA rays. Most sunscreens offer mild, if any protection from UVA rays. Sunscreen is usually applied when there is a perceived chance of getting a burn like at the beach during vacation. However, those same UVA rays are just as present in the cooler spring and fall months, when the lack of UVB rays provides a false sense of security as one does not burn as easily.
Sunscreen use can be detrimental because it is very effective at blocking the rays needed to produce vitamin D, and is not effective at blocking the rays that cause cancer. Not to mention all of the harmful chemicals being applied directly to the skin!
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The solution is to practice smart sun exposure. Depending on the fairness of your skin, you will want to expose yourself to sunlight without sunscreen a few times a week, for 10-20 minutes or more. Darker skin will require more sun exposure to generate the needed Vitamin D you need. In general, the recommendations are to stay out for half the amount of time it would take you to burn. If you were wanting a clearer idea of the amount of Vitamin D you produce based on your skin tone and geography, an app called DMinder can help you track it.
Cover yourself or use a safe sunscreen if you are going to be outside for a prolonged period of time. Pay attention to the seasonal differences that affect the strength of the sun including the time of day, latitude, and season as this will impact the strength of the sun’s rays and the duration you can stay exposed for.
You can get small amounts of vitamin D in fatty, cold-water fish like sardines, herring, and mackerel, as well as beef liver and pasture-raised pork. These foods also happen to be incredibly nutritious and are encouraged on a Paleo diet. Cod liver oil can also be a good source of vitamin D in the diet. Although dietary vitamin D is unlikely to meet your body’s requirements, it can support your Vitamin D production as well as provide further nutrients.
For those who cannot get sufficient natural sun exposure (this includes the majority of people living in Westernized societies, irregardless of diet or lifestyle philosophy), a supplement may be warranted. For those who find themselves mildly to severely deficient, a high-quality supplement can help restore levels rapidly.
A note of caution: Elevated levels of vitamin D can cause a buildup of calcium in areas of the body where you don’t want them — soft tissues like the blood vessels and kidneys. This is usually only seen in people who supplement with high doses of vitamin D. It is easy to get vitamin D levels too high by taking an excessive dose or a prolonged supplement, so make sure to test and have a doctor review your dosage.
Choosing A Supplement
Look for a vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) supplement, ideally carried in a fat since the vitamin is fat-soluble and will be better absorbed when combined with one. Read the ingredient list (especially the non-medicinal ingredients) to ensure the product contains no other fillers. Most products are simple to take with the droppers provided.
Vitamin D has a synergistic relationship to the other fat-soluble vitamins A and K2, and research shows having adequate levels protects against toxicity. When supplementing with vitamin D, eat vitamin A-rich foods like liver and other organ meats, and fatty, cold-water fish. K2 can be obtained in small amounts from fermented foods and is made in the gut by your flora.
Make sure to check with your doctor to rule out deficiency and determine an optimal dosage for your body. Although most people are likely to be deficient in vitamin D and taking a moderate dose initially is unlikely to be harmful, blind supplementation is never ideal, especially after taking Vitamin D for a few months.
Are You Getting Enough?
It is important for you to have your vitamin D level tested regularly to determine whether levels are adequate, to pinpoint a deficiency and gauge how effective supplementation is.
The optimal level is debatable, with the Vitamin D Council recommending a range of 40-70 ng/dL, with an ideal sitting at 50 ng/dL. Many practitioners recommend on the higher end of that spectrum, due to the immune-modulating and anti-inflammatory properties of vitamin D. other researchers and practitioners researchers in the ancestral health community, are recommending levels that are more cautious, 25-50 ng/dL with an ideal at 35 ng/dL.
Your ideal level is best determined through working with your doctor, combined with a some trial and error.
Combining daily sun exposure with some vitamin D-rich foods and supplementing if and when necessary will ensure you are experiencing all the benefits Vitamin D provides.