Here in Colorado it is time to rejoice!!! It’s March and while March is our most snowy month, it is also when the sun finally rises high enough in the sky again for us to synthesize vitamin D into our skin. WooHoo!!! Exalt, as our “vitamin D” depleted winter that is generally from November through February has concluded. And if you don’t live on or above the 40 degree latitude (Colorado happens to sit on it), aren’t you lucky, because you have longer opportunities during the year to soak up sun that can be converted to vitamin D.
Okay, so I know that for us whiteys—our pale, see-through complexion of winter hibernating (yes, I’m talking to you too Seattle and Portland) is all the rage right now with the whole mass media vampire sexiness social appeal and the way our too bright, white reflection dazzlingly offsets the color of our hipster black clothing, but…suck it up and get some sun.
Sun = Vitamin D = Healthier = Good = Reason to repeat = Sun…..
Realize that sunblock also blocks the UV rays needed for vitamin D conversion. This means that ideally you spend some unprotected time in the sun each day. In the summer, at least try for 20 minutes a day of unprotected sun time (at least your face and hands getting some sun) when the sun is not at its highest or hottest before applying sunblock (and I only suggest using natural sunscreens). If you feel comfortable going for longer that is even better.
Ethnicities with darker skin require up to six times more sun exposure to reach optimal D levels as skin pigmentation provides natural UV defense (helpful for preventing skin cancer and looking like you’re not a vampire, but not so helpful in sun to vitamin D conversion). For example, at noon in the Miami summer, an individual with light toned skin would require at the most, 6 minutes of unprotected sun to synthesize 1000 IU of vitamin D and at the most, 15 minutes in the Miami winter; whereas dark skin tones would need at least 15 minutes in the summer and at least 30 minutes in the winter. In contrast, at noon in the summer in Boston, light skin tones require at the most, approximately 1 hour of unprotected sun to synthesize 1000 IU of vitamin D and darker skin tones require at least 2 hours. And because of the latitude, in the winter months in Boston (just like the winter months in Colorado), vitamin D production is not possible at all for anyone.
Vitamin D = Good, Deficiency = Bad
Vitamin D deficiency exacerbates osteoporosis and is the cause of osteomalacia. It’s also connected to muscle weakness, failure to respond to strength training, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s critical to preventing autoimmune disorders, cancers, diabetes, hypertension and more.
So get ye outside and play…
When the sun is not enough
That said, there are some folks that may need more vitamin D than just what the sun can deliver. This includes winter supplementation for non-farmers and construction workers that live on or above the 40 degree latitude and year-round for those who are uncomfortable with getting unprotected sun exposure or that cannot spend much time outdoors (read: another reason to become a farmer in the Southern states). This may seem like a surprise, but our bodies were not engineered to function at optimal level when sitting 6-12 hours in a cubicle, under fluorescent lights, hunched over a computer that emits electromagnetic rays while we toss back a Big Mac, fries and a Supersized Coca Cola (says she, hunched over her laptop in her darkened office, tossing back her kale smoothie, pretending she is immune to this statement).
Also, those folks that may need to supplement with vitamin D includes anyone facing any major health challenge, such as generally any autoimmune conditions (especially celiac disease), heart disease, cancers (for more info on this attend my free nutrition workshop for cancer on 4/18/12 in Denver), osteoporosis, osteomalacia, anorexia, fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism (especially Hashimoto’s), in pregnancy, in neurodegenerative disorders, with diabetes (for more info on this attend our free natural health workshop for diabetes on 3/27/12), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), etc. (the list could go on…just know that if it’s bad… you probably need more vitamin D and no, please don’t read that as me saying pregnancy is bad).
I do want to elaborate on a couple of these health concerns—the ones I like to jabber on and on about, mostly to pretend that my lack of naturally synthesized winter vitamin D isn’t affecting my brain function yet. With celiac disease and actually any gastrointestinal inflammatory disorder (IBS, IBD, colitis, Chrohn’s, etc.), vitamin D absorption (and other fat soluble vitamins) is greatly compromised. Likewise, this is true with anorexia, in which the body is leaching minerals from the bones to compensate from lack of minerals in the diet (resulting in osteoporosis and the need for more vitamin D to support calcium and magnesium processes) and often the healthy dietary fats that support absorption of vitamin D are missing.
Ninety percent of people with autoimmune thyroid disorders actually have a genetic defect limiting their ability to effectively process vitamin D. This means that they need to supplement with even more vitamin D to increase their blood levels. And given that over 80% of thyroid problems are actually autoimmune caused (but that’s a whole other article), if you are hypothyroid, there is a good case to be made for vitamin D supplementing and getting ye butt outside.
What about food?
Yes, we can get vitamin D from oily fish, liver, organ meats, lard, butter, egg yolks (from pastured chickens) and minimally from dark leafy greens, but that’s it. There are some foods, like milk that are fortified with vitamin D, but it’s minimal (100 IU/serving compared to getting ~20,000 IU from 20 minutes of sun). So if you are vegan or eat the Standard American Diet (aka lots of refined carbohydrates and junk food), get ye outside to play AND consider supplementation.
Vegans can only get vitamin D3 from the sun, but can get vitamin D2 from yeast-based supplements. Vitamin D2 comes from the UV irradiation of ergosterol obtained from yeast. Cod liver oil and supplements from lanolin (from sheep’s wool) are not vegan. If not vegan, I strongly suggest supplementing with cod liver oil because it is the highest food source of vitamin D and it naturally contains vitamin D3 (without any irradiation) which is the form of vitamin D that our bodies convert from the sun. My favorite is made by Apex, but there are some over-the-counter varieties that don’t taste bad and have been tested for mercury. Besides Apex, one of the best tasting ones is made by TwinLabs and one of the highest levels of vitamin D is found in Carlson (though lacking in tastiness). The other form of supplementation of vitamin D3 is made by irradiating 7-dehydrocholesterol obtained from the lanolin of sheep’s wool with UVB radiation. Both vitamins D2 and D3 are metabolized in the liver to form 25-hydroxyvitamin D and in the kidneys to form 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D.
Note: Okay, so I realize that cod liver oil sounds like something that you would have to plug your nose to drink and wash down with a spoonful of Mary Poppins sugar, but not so much. Manufacturers have gotten pretty darn good at making it pretty darn tasty. I’ve tried orange (down right delicious–seriously), lemon (eh not so bad) and peppermint (okay, disgusting) and I actually look forward to downing a little cod liver oil straight-up or neat because they’ve made it so delicious (and I constantly crave fat). Granted, I’m waiting for them to come out with chocolate cod liver oil, but in the meantime, I’ll just have to settle for swirling a little orange-flavored cod liver oil into some chocolate hazelnut milk. No nose pinching required—I promise.
The vitamin D council suggests supplementing with 4,000-5,000 IU/day. If you have problems absorbing or in converting vitamin D, as with disorders mentioned above, you may need to supplement with as much as 20,000 IU/day. Those with especially low Vitamin D levels or who have problems absorbing/converting vitamin D should only use an emulsified form (cod liver oil) and also supplement with the cofactors magnesium, biotin, pantethine, calcium and boron, which strengthen the physiological effects of vitamin D.
Now before you get all vitamin D supplementing crazy, please realize that there is the potential of overdosing on vitamin D if you supplement on the higher side (between 5,000-20,000 IU/day) since it is a fat soluble vitamin (doesn’t just flush out so easily in your pee like the water soluble ones). Although very rare, toxicity is possible. When in doubt…test and work with a functional medicine nutritionist or doctor.
And lucky you… During the month of March, the lab I order blood tests from is having a vitamin D sale (I know, exciting right!). The vitamin D, 25 Hydroxy test normally retails for $232 and this month is on sale for $39! And because I believe everyone needs to control their own health and be educated on what their body is doing, I don’t jack up the cost of the test to make any money off of it. This is especially nice for those of us without insurance. I am throwing in a free Nutrition Strategy Session along with the vitamin D blood testing so that you can figure out what next steps to take if you are low in vitamin D. And you don’t have to be in Denver to do the testing and free strategy session. We can Skype the session and I can send you for a blood draw almost anywhere in the US (exluding RI, MA, MD, NJ and NY). And if you would like to know even more about your health and your body, the Comprehensive Wellness Profile (includes Lipids, CBC, Thyroid, Liver, Kidney, Minerals & Bones, Fluid & Electrolytes and Glucose blood markers) + Vitamin D Blood Test is on sale for June at $89 (retails at $750) + Free Nutrition Consult. If you are interested in doing this, just email me at katie (at) nourishedhealth (dot) com.
3/15/13 Update: Sorry the 2012 Vitamin D tests or no longer available, though you are still welcome to contact me about ordering a Vitamin D test. Or you can geek out and try to estimate your vitamin D levels without testing with this fun, nerdy tool.
6/25/20 Update: This is a research heavy article and a number of the links to studies were broken. I’ve updated broken links which has resulted in some research links being added that are more recent than when the article was originally written (good indication that a full update of this article is needed!). Some blaring differences: more recent research has shown that Vitamin D supplementation for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is inconclusive, that said studies have been small and often there are multiple health issues happening with CFS like hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia, and inflammation all of which are supported by Vitamin D (links in the article). If you notice any broken links I’ve missed (this article or another one), PLEASE send me an email or post a comment so I can update it. Thanks y’all! (Kathleen Bauer)
So cheers! Here’s to swirling some cod liver oil into your daily smoothie and then going outside to play in the sun!