The sunshine vitamin, vitamin D, is important beyond belief for optimal health. Emerging science shows that vitamin D may have a bigger impact on our health than previously thought; influencing everything from overall health to autoimmune conditions. After all, vitamin D helps control over 1,000 genes in our body!
How is vitamin D formed?
Vitamin D, actually a pro-hormone, is formed when our skin is exposed to sunlight. The ultraviolet B rays trigger a cascade that starts with 7-dehydrocholesterol and ends with active vitamin D3, with the help of the liver and kidneys. This process can be blocked by wearing clothes or even sunscreen. Therefore, not reaping the benefits vitamin D can provide: including preventing some autoimmune conditions.
In case you didn’t read between the lines—I’m recommending a beach day for your health…because, you know, natural health;)
What are optimal levels?
According to the United States government, a sufficient vitamin D level in the blood is 30 ng/mL. Although this may prevent the disease rickets, it doesn’t allow for optimal health. When treating patients using a functional medicine approach, we’re always looking for optimal levels. Many others say that optimal levels of vitamin D in the blood are somewhere between 70 and 100 ng/ml. From years of testing vitamin D of every single patient, I have seen 1 who has had an optimal vitamin D level. Epidemic? You bet. Extreme deficiencies, particularly in vitamin D, can lead to autoimmune diseases such as colorectal cancer, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes.
Why vitamin D is so important:
Low vitamin D levels can lead to bone loss. Adequate levels of vitamin D help the body absorb certain minerals important for bone formation, like calcium. Most people don’t need to supplement with calcium, as we get most from our diets, also poor quality forms of calcium like calcium carbonate can be harmful to the body. Bottom line: when you think bone health, think vitamin D.
Adequate vitamin levels can protect from 17 different types of cancers, including lung cancer and colon cancer. Vitamin D can actually trigger apoptosis, or death, of cancer cells. It also controls the rate at which cells divide, a powerful brake on cancer’s growth! This is why in my functional medicine practice in St. Louis, I am sure to be checking more than just the basics on labwork. Micronutrients are essential to health.
Amazing studies have shown tumors disappear in mice and breast cancers shrink. One study reported in Medscape Medical News, showed that women with ‘very low levels’ of Vitamin D were 94% more likely to develop metastasis than women with normal levels. Even more striking, the women with low vitamin D levels were 73% more likely to die.
Vitamin D and the Immune System:
It helps the immune system recognize foreign invaders from harmless cells and tissues. T regulatory cells job is to let the fighters of the immune system know what is the body, and what could potentially be harmful. When people develop autoimmune diseases, these T regulatory cells cannot recognize good from bad. When this happens, the body can attack itself, leading to autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and type 1 diabetes. When Vitamin D levels are optimal, the immune system has the best shot at working correctly. In fact, one study showed that optimal vitamin D levels from supplementation could reduce the risk of getting type 1 diabetes by 80%!
It has also been shown to be vital for brain health. The brain and nervous system have vitamin D receptors that help regulate nerve growth and neurotransmitter production. Optimal vitamin D levels can help regulate mood, aid neuroprotection, and slows cognitive decline. One study showed that those who were severely Vitamin D deficient were almost 400% more likely to have cognitive impairment!
It’s good for pregnant women, too! New research shows that supplementing with a modest dose of vitamin D greatly reduced the risk of complications; like preterm birth, gestational diabetes, and infection.
Low levels can also lead to cardiovascular disease, depression, and type 2 Diabetes. In fact, middle aged and elderly people with high levels of vitamin D reduce their chances of having cardiovascular disease and diabetes by 43%!
-You may be vitamin D deficient if you experience any of the following symptoms:
-high blood pressure
-Seasonal Affective disorder
-joint or muscle pain
-fatigue or muscle weakness
-Testosterone/ Estrogen imbalance
How to get vitamin D?
Although vitamin D is synthesized in our skin when we are exposed to sunlight, many people, some say billions, around the world are deficient in this nutrient. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to get adequate dosages of vitamin D by consuming foods. A few foods like fatty fish and liver contain small amounts of the vitamin, but not nearly enough to drastically increase levels.
The main way to naturally raise vitamin D is to soak up the sun. Though for many, including many in the United States, the UVB rays from the sun are not strong enough to trigger the vitamin D reaction in the body. The further away from the equator, the weaker the UV rays, the higher the need to supplement. If you are going to get vitamin D from the sun, your best times to soak it up are late spring through early fall. The middle of day has the most direct sun, and you should have a lot of skin showing for the reaction to take place. The sun’s rays are strongest during the noontime hours. Keep this in mind and try to schedule your sun-bathing time between 11 am-3 pm for optimal benefit. Soaking up sun for 15-30 minutes per day with lots of bare skin is usually enough to make sufficient amounts of Vitamin D.
If you’re unsure still if you may be vitamin D deficient, be sure to schedule with a functional medicine doctor!
Note: Sunscreens reduce UVB exposure- not only blocking the sun’s rays, but blocking vitamin D absorption also. SPF 30 blocks 97-99% of UVB, the ultraviolet rays responsible for the vitamin D cascade in the body.
Side note: for a list of the best natural sunscreens, visit Environmental Working Group’s website:
If supplementing, a liquid vitamin D taken around meals (with fat) is the best option and most highly absorbed. Vitamin D3 is the most usable form, so stay away from others, like D2. Everyone’s dosage will be different, depending on skin color, age, overall health, and current vitamin D level. Although vitamin D levels can potentially become toxic at high levels in the body, it is extremely rare. The Institute of Medicine recommends that Americans consume 200 IU of vitamin D/day. This extremely low dosage may prevent the disease rickets, but will surely not result in optimal health. Most people do well on about 5,000 IU/day as a maintenance dose, but it needs to be increased when sick or in the wintertime. Of course, you can consult your functional medicine doctor.
Importance of testing
Vitamin D levels can fluctuate throughout the year due to sun exposure and sun potency. This is why it is ideal to check your vitamin levels multiple times throughout the year to ensure that you are at optimal levels. When testing, it is critical to check your 25- hydroxyl Vitamin D (25 OH vitamin D) levels.
As you have seen, Vitamin D is downright essential for optimal health. Its effects can be extremely beneficial when levels are high, and harmful when levels are low. Make sure your doctor tests your vitamin D levels multiple times per year, as these levels fluctuate. If needed, make sure you supplement with a correct dosage and form of vitamin D.
Cheers to sunbathing, supplementing, and optimal health!