If you’ve been around the natural community long enough, you’ve heard the fuss about vitamin D. For some, it is an absolute miracle cure, and none of us are getting anywhere close to enough. But others are beginning to say that supplementing is actually not a good idea and can cause more harm than good. So who’s right…and what do you do?
What is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a pre-hormone that helps to regulate many of the hormones in your body. It’s often promoted as “for strong bones,” which is true, but vitamin D is really so much more than that!
Vitamin D’s actions:
- Helps the body absorb calcium
- Needed for muscle movement
- Balances blood sugar
- Controls inflammation
- Supports the immune system
- May protect against several forms of cancer
- May protect against autoimmune or chronic illnesses
There are several studies about the benefits that vitamin D can provide – and the risks of having levels that are too low.
- Low vitamin D linked to gestational diabetes
- Low vitamin D levels in pregnancy linked to asthma in children
- Low vitamin D levels linked to autism
- Low vitamin D levels linked to breast cancer
- Celiacs don’t absorb vitamin D well; leads to other problems
- Low vitamin D levels increase diabetes risk
- Vitamin D may decrease incidence of epilepsy
- Low vitamin D levels linked to melanoma risk
- Low vitamin D levels linked to Parkinson’s Disease
In fact, low vitamin D levels have been linked to basically every serious health condition. It’s obvious that we need to have enough…what’s not obvious is what constitutes “enough,” and how should we optimally get it?
How Much Vitamin D Do I Need?
The current RDA for vitamin D is 600 IU (15 mcg) for adults and older children. It is 400 IU (10 mcg) for babies, and 800 IU (20 mcg) for elderly adults. (source) These levels are likely inadequate to achieve vitamin D sufficiency; however, we are not meant to get vitamin D from our diets. We are meant to get it from the sun, and the amount our skin makes is much higher – and not controllable!
Additionally, the mainstream considers vitamin D deficiency to be below 12 ng/ML; insufficiency to be below 20 ng/ML, and “adequate” to be between 20 and 50 ng/ML. (source)
The studies on optimal levels of vitamin D are sparse. It’s known that poor health outcomes become much more likely below 20 ng/ML, but in that space between 20 and 50, few studies have been completed on what is the “best” level. (source)
On the flip side, a retrospective study looked at patients with vitamin D levels as high as 120 ng/ML that showed no negative health outcomes – even though the mainstream considers anything above 50 to be “too high.” (source)
Some natural sources will claim that optimal levels are actually much higher, more like 60 – 80 ng/ML, but I can’t find any evidence of this. It could be true, but the studies don’t exist right now. The truth is that no one actually knows what the true optimal level is – except that it definitely needs to be above 20. And everyone might have a slightly different “optimal level” depending on their age, health condition, hormone balance, health status (pregnant? etc.), and more.
Despite this confusing answer, many people are still below 20, and need to get their levels up! How do you do that?
A Word on Mega-Dosing Vitamin D Supplements
The natural community has embraced mega-dosing vitamin D (along with mega-dosing many other vitamins) for years. There is evidence that many health conditions are linked to vitamin D deficiency: autoimmunity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and pretty much every other severe disease out there. So if we’re all so deficient, and deficiency is so serious, we should all get tons of vitamin D, right?
Not so fast.
Our bodies are meant to be in balance, and all the nutrients we consume contribute to that balance. If we mega-dose on one nutrient (or try to get our levels sky high), this throws off the balance. That doesn’t benefit our overall health at all.
So what about vitamin D?
Deficiency *is* really common these days. But I have some theories on why that is, and ‘why’ matters a lot. There are two key factors: lack of sun and environmental toxicity.
Lack of sun is pretty obvious. We’ve been told for years that we should avoid the sun because it will give us cancer, and that we need to wear sunscreen daily, not even walking to the mailbox without. That was and is completely terrible advice. We NEED sun exposure, and sun exposure has proven to be more helpful than supplementation in improving metabolic health issues (source).
Environmental toxicity means poor food…water…and pollution. When people are exposed to pollution long-term, they are more likely to develop liver disease (source). That matters because vitamin D is converted into its active form in the liver. If the liver is not functioning optimally, that conversion is not happening effectively. Low vitamin D levels are associated with liver/gut issues (source).
Giving people more vitamin D without addressing the underlying issues is only so helpful. Some studies have shown that doing so is beneficial (source), but others have shown uncertain or no benefit (source, source). Very high-dose vitamin D is well-tolerated in some groups (source), but it can also lead to hypercalcemia (source).
Further, vitamin D is modulated by magnesium (source), a mineral most of us are also deficient in. If we don’t have enough magnesium, our cells can’t use vitamin D (source). And mega-doses of vitamin D can actually deplete magnesium levels…meaning our cells can’t even use it all…and that’s helping no one (source).
Magnesium is associated with poor gut health and anxiety (source). If it’s depleted, even if we get our vitamin D levels up, the problem isn’t solved, it’s just moved.
So what do we do with all of this?
Straight-up vitamin D supplementation can’t solve underlying health problems, and may make things worse. Ignoring it isn’t a solution either.
How to Get Vitamin D
Optimal: The Sun
Get 10 – 30 minutes of mid-day sunlight daily as many days per year as possible (until skin turns pink). Sun is the absolute best source of vitamin D, and where we’re meant to get it from. Exposing most of your skin to mid-day sun (when the UVB rays are strongest) for 30 minutes can produce up to 20,000 IU of vitamin D.
For years, the mainstream recommended avoiding mid-day sun, in favor of early before (before 10 AM) or late afternoon (after 3 PM) to reduce the risk of sunburns.
Unfortunately, this is terrible advice. The UVA rays that can cause skin cancer and deep-level skin damage are strong all the time. The UVB rays that can cause sunburn – but also produce vitamin D in the skin – are strongest around mid-day. Why would you expose your skin to rays that can’t produce much vitamin D, but can cause long-term damage? That makes no sense.
Solar noon (1 PM daylight savings time) is the optimal time to get sun exposure.
By the way, you can’t wear sunscreen while you do this. Sunscreens block almost all UVB rays.
Reduce Inflammation in the Body
This step doesn’t actually get you more vitamin D directly…but it does support your liver so that it can effectively absorb and convert the vitamin D you receive so your body can actually use it. That’s just as important as getting the vitamin itself!
Reduce inflammation in the body by taking cinnamon, ginger, cayenne (in food or as supplements — try this liquid option), as well as avoiding sugar, white flour, and vegetable oil (pro-inflammatory foods).
Support Your Liver
Same deal as above – a healthy liver is required to make the conversion so your body can actually use vitamin D!
Support liver health with milk thistle, dandelion root, and peppermint. You can also try castor packs over your liver, and be sure to get daily light exercise and drink plenty of water.
Vitamin D Supplements
Until we solve the issue of understanding optimal levels and the impact that high-dose supplementing can have, it’s best to stick to natural sources, like cod liver oil. Synthetics are definitely a bad idea.
Eat Adequate Fat
Vitamin D requires fat to be absorbed, because it is a fat-soluble vitamin. If you are not consuming enough dietary fat, you will not reap the benefits! This is why most food sources are oily. It is best absorbed if combined with omega-3 fatty acids (again, why it’s found primarily in fish or foods that also contain omega-3s!). It is important to continue to eat occasional fish or other omega-3 sources even if you are getting it from the sun, for this reason.
Interestingly, these same fats can protect your skin from the sun so that you do not burn. Burning happens, in part, due to free radicals and inflammation becoming oxidized when exposed to sunlight. If you reduce your inflammation and improve your overall health, you will be less likely to burn – and you’ll make vitamin D in your skin more easily.
The Bottom Line: Get Some Sun!
Vitamin D, like most other vitamins and minerals, is complex. It needs to be in balance in your body, and teasing out exactly how much you need is difficult. Trust the nature and the sun, and support your body’s normal systems so that it can optimize itself!
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3976443/ (topical vitamin D)
- Uncertain benefits in people with liver disease https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34431511/
- Gut damage causes multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes, and other autoimmune issues
- Probiotic foods produce short-chain fatty acids to improve gut health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5423028/
- Kombucha improves liver health: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30815318/
- Vitamin D in the production of melatonin and regulation of sleep: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32156230/
- Liver disease increasing: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29630771/
- Metabolic associated fatty liver disease increases all-cause mortality: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34380057/