During winter the supplement I prescribe the most is vitamin D, and many of my clients take it religiously on my recommendation. Since I discovered how important this fat-soluble vitamin is, I’ve encouraged many of my clients to have a blood test for vitamin D, and most of them are at the low end of the recommended range. We live in a country where there is plenty of sunshine during the summer, so there’s potential for us all to have healthy vitamin D levels. Unfortunately, the advice to ‘slip, slop, slap’ has been taken too far and I believe that many of our health crises are due to an overzealous adherence to this recommendation. Not only this, but most of the foods rich in vitamin D have also become untrendy or politically incorrect, namely animal fats, dairy fat (butter, cream and whole milk), organ meats, and eggs. Cancer, obesity, anxiety and depression, inflammatory bowel disorders, and infertility are some of the health concerns that vitamin D can be used to prevent or treat.
Cholecalciferol or vitamin D3 is found in animal foods such as dairy fats (full fat milk, cream, butter and cheese), lard from free range pigs, organ meats (liver and kidney), fish liver oils, and egg yolks from free ranging hens. Vitamin D2 is found in green leafy vegetables and sun-dried mushrooms (shiitake). Vitamin D is produced in our skin when exposed to UVB light from sunlight, and some people have a genetic predisposition to being low or deficient. Sunscreens that have been designed to block UVB to stop burning also inhibit natural vitamin D production.
The most commonly understood role of vitamin D is to aid in the absorption of calcium for healthy bones and teeth, and for the prevention of arthritis and osteoporosis. Hence vitamin D supplements are often prescribed for the elderly to prevent fractures. Children also require a healthy dose of sunshine to build strong bones and teeth as they grow.
Other functions of vitamin D, which makes it one of the essential nutrients for vibrant health and wellbeing are as follows:
- Vitamin D and calcium are important for a well functioning nervous system, heart and muscle function, and normal blood clotting.
- Optimal vitamin D levels reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease including stroke, congestive heart failure, and risk of heart attack. Vitamin D supplementation worked ‘as well as drugs’ to reduce blood pressure.
- Vitamin D acts as an anti-proliferative agent in the colon, and has shown to be protective against bowel cancer. Vitamin D supplements have been used in the treatment of coeliac and other diseases of the large intestines. People with Crohn’s disease have particularly low vitamin D levels.
- Vitamin D is necessary for effective cognitive function and mental processing, helps prevent Alzheimer’s, and increases clearance of amyloid plaques. It also improves mood, and reduces the incidence of depression and anxiety. Treatment of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) with vitamin D completely resolved the symptoms.
- Multiple sclerosis is linked to vitamin D deficiency during adolescence and young adulthood, hence sending the kids outside to play when the weather is fine is still good advice.
- Vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy can be a risk factor for autism spectrum disorders, ADD, type 1 diabetes, asthma, allergies including food allergies in children, and an increased risk of the child becoming obese as a child and subsequently an adult. Children born to mothers who were deficient in vitamin D were more susceptible to developing schizophrenia, recurrent depression and bipolar disorder as adults.
- Healthy levels of vitamin D during pregnancy reduce the risk of miscarriage, pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes.
- Good vitamin D status reduced the risk of catching common infections including colds and the flu, tuberculosis, pneumonia and MRSA. People with optimal vitamin D levels recover more quickly from surgery and go home sooner, have fewer post surgery complications and are less likely to catch an infection while in hospital.
- Vitamin D is linked to sexual performance and fertility. Incidence of erectile dysfunction, sperm health, testosterone and androgen levels in men are linked to vitamin D status, and in women, vitamin D improved fertility, and normalised the menstrual cycle in women with PCOS.
- Vitamin D regulates cellular differentiation, making it preventative against cancer. Good vitamin D status increases survival rates in people diagnosed with cancer, and people with higher vitamin D levels are found to have smaller tumours.
- Now the biggest surprise is that vitamin D is actually protective against melanoma. Research has found that indoor office workers have higher melanoma rates than outdoor workers, and people who get outside in the sun at weekends are less likely to get melanoma than people who stay out of the sun.
What can you do to improve your vitamin D status?
First of all, get your levels tested. You can request to have this done directly through Pathlab – it costs about $40, and ensure you request a copy of your results to be sent to you. To understand your result, I generally go by the international standards for vitamin D levels, which for optimal health are between 125 and 200 nmol/l. The New Zealand MOH levels are much more prudent at 50 – 150 nmol/l.
Secondly, start eating vitamin D rich foods and/or take a supplement – personally I do both. Free range eggs, full fat milk and dairy products, lard and organ meats from free ranging animals, and good old-fashioned cod liver oil. Green vegetables and mushrooms contain vitamin D2, which must be converted to D3 to be utilised. Including all these foods into your diet especially during winter will help maintain your vitamin D levels.
My advice to all my clients is to absorb as much vitamin D during summer as they can without getting burnt. The best time to absorb UVB light is when the sun is directly overhead during the middle of the day. If you expose 80-90% of your body to the sun, you can absorb 20,000 – 30,000 IU vitamin D in about 30 minutes depending on your skin colour. My general recommendation is to lie out in the sun in a bikini or shorts, without sunscreen, for 10-15 minutes on your front and 10-15 minutes on your back – more or less according to your burn time (I don’t recommend getting burnt).
I’ve discovered that keeping my vitamin D levels within the optimal range (my last reading was 135 nmol/l) helps me stay healthy during winter. I no longer feel miserable and want to stay in bed all day as I did a few years ago, and if I do get a cold (not that I’ve had one for a few years) I tend to recover very quickly without secondary sinus or chest infections taking hold. I’m also aware that bowel cancer and mental health issues are on both sides of my family, so I’m taking precautions now to prevent these issues becoming a problem for me.
I hope that this information will help you to be happier and healthier, and if there’s anything I can do to help or you’d like to grab some vitamin D supplements, please phone me or make contact by filling in the form on the contact page.
Vitamin D. Is this the Miracle Vitamin? Ian Wishart