Following on from my previous posts on synthetic vitamins and iron, one of the biggest worries people have is regarding vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D deficiency affects about 10% of Americans and over 25% of people in the UK. Medical advice in many countries is blanket supplementation of vitamin D of at least 400ui daily. This is not a long lasting solution and can have long term health implications, like hormone, vitamin and mineral imbalances. Let’s demystify vitamin D so that you can feel confident in increasing and maintaining adequate levels.
Vitamin D Myths
The first and most important vitamin D myth: vitamin D is not a vitamin! That’s right. Vitamin D is actually a hormone. When you think about synthetic supplementation, keep that in mind: taking synthetic “vitamin” D means you are ingesting a synthetic hormone, not a vitamin. Hormones are messengers that target specific organs and regulate physiology and behaviour. They are extremely important in mental health, overall physical health, fertility, and other functions. Hormones regulate, control and coordinate activities in the body, which means too much or too little can cause a wide variety of medical issues. Balance is key. This is such an important take away, so I’m going to refer to vitamin D as hormone D for the rest of this post. It’s very important for this to sink in.
The second hormone D myth is around the sun. Outdoor daytime exposure is what makes most of our hormone D. Exposure doesn’t mean heat from the sun, and it doesn’t mean sunlight! I repeat, you do not need to be in direct sunlight to make hormone D. Even on a cloudy day, up to 80% of UV rays from the sun pass through the clouds. All we need to make hormone D is UVB rays directly on to our face, hands or neck. That’s it!
The third myth I want to address is around food. While it is true that you don’t get a lot of hormone D from food, this is only in comparison to the amount of hormone D you get from the sun. It doesn’t mean that food cannot help you raise your hormone D levels! Just 15 minutes in the sun can produce as much as 10,000ui of hormone D, whereas the highest hormone D foods (wild caught fish like mackerel) “only” contain a little over 500ui of hormone D. However, the right foods are an excellent source of hormone D, especially in winter months where the cold (not lack of sun) keeps us indoors more often.
Why Is Hormone D Important
The medical community is still piecing together exactly what the vast number of functions and health effects of hormone D are, but a few worth mentioning:
- Bone health. Hormone D is necessary for the absorption of calcium. Calcium supplements were historically advised for women at risk of osteoporosis. Research has found that hormone D plays a larger role in osteoporosis prevention. Hormone D is also crucial in the prevention of rickets.
- Muscular health. Muscle strength and postural stability are linked to adequate levels of hormone D.
- Fertility. Hormone D works with oestrogen and progesterone in order to maintain optimal reproductive health in women. Lack of hormone D can lead to irregular menstrual cycles. Oestrogen and progesterone are hormones as well, so it’s important for the three to work together in balance.
- Mental health. Hormone D activates the production of serotonin, which is directly linked to mental health, including preventing depression, anxiety, aggressive behaviour, PMS, schizophrenia and even improving mortality.
- Heart health. Low hormone D increases your risk of stroke, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
- Cancer prevention. Adequate levels of hormone D are linked to prevention of cancers including prostate, colon, breast and ovarian cancer.
- Dental health. Hormone D is important in the role of optimal dental health, including the prevention of tooth decay and cavities.
How to Raise Your Levels Naturally
Because hormone D is crucial to our health in many ways, it’s important to maintain adequate levels. Because of risks of hypervitaminosis, excess calcium, and the very short amount of time that hormone D actually remains in our system, it’s important to raise levels without supplements. Here are a few things you can do:
- Go outside every day possible for at least 15 minutes, away from areas shaded by buildings, or other man-made structures. Glass also blocks UVB rays, so you need to actually be outside to get hormone D.
- Ditch the sunscreen. This is your number one task if you want to increase your hormone D levels. SPF as low as 15 blocks the UVB rays that are necessary to convert sun exposure to hormone D. In addition, sunscreen is absorbed through your skin and studies show it is still detectable in your urine up to two weeks after you have used it. Sunscreen also contains chemicals that mimic other hormones, like oestrogen, which means they are creating a further imbalance. Also be sure to look for hidden SPF in products like makeup and face creams. I could write an entire blog post about the dangers of sunscreen.
- Practice responsible sun exposure.
- Wear a hat or head covering.
- Alternate between sun and shade, but not indoor shade. Although the sun’s rays can pass through leaves, trees and beach umbrellas, they cannot pass through walls or glass.
- Wear protective clothing. For adequate exposure, you only need to have your face, hands or neck exposed.
- Use cool long-sleeved fabrics like cotton and linen.
- Increase your hormone D foods. Ensure that you are having plenty of foods that contain hormone D. These include fatty fish like salmon and mackerel (wild caught), organ meat like beef liver, eggs with the yolk, raw (unpasteurised milk) and mushrooms. Most foods with hormone D have the added benefit of also providing K2 and HDL, both necessary for optimal metabolism and absorption. Remember that our body uses vitamins, minerals and hormones in groups and not in isolation.
- You want to focus on foods that have naturally occurring hormone D and not foods that are fortified. Fortified means the hormone D provided is synthetic.
- Avoid foods that inhibit hormone D. Hormone D is metabolised in the liver and kidneys, and hormone D from food is absorbed in the intestines. Foods that tax these parts of your body, like grains that have not been sprouted, will prevent hormone D metabolism and absorption.
- Take cod liver oil every day. is a natural source of vitamin D, and has excellent immune supporting and other health benefits. You should take it daily instead of supplementing, and in addition to the other tips given.
- Give hormone D a boost with magnesium. Both magnesium and hormone D are present in every organ in the body, and magnesium is necessary in order to convert hormone D from sun exposure and food into its active form. A low level of hormone D is indicative of a low level of magnesium. Therefore, in order to raise our hormone D levels, supplementation of magnesium is important. The best types of magnesium are ones that serve two functions. I like , which detoxes the liver, or , which supports cardiovascular, brain and liver health, and helps with anxiety and sleep.
How Much Hormone D is Enough
Finally, how much D is enough? There seems to be a misconception around hormone D and how much we actually need. Real deficiencies are rare, and doctors will often recommend hormone D even if there is no true deficiency or other serious health related issues. The consensus is that 20ng/ml (approximatel 50nmol/l) is sufficient, and our bodies have a natural upper limit of about 36ng/ml from sun exposure and food. A deficiency is any level below 12ng/ml (29nmol/l). When I had a deficiency, my levels were 8nmol/l. I was losing hair, not menstruating, and having severe fatigue, depression and joint pain.
Hormone D is normally measured in UI, which stands for international units. A multivitamin normally contains 400ui of hormone D, or 10mcg. This is a good baseline to use when deciding whether or not to accept supplements. You can usually correct any hormone D deficiency yourself, unless your doctor prescribes a hormone D supplement with a UI in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Exhaust all avenues and only use hormone D supplements if absolutely necessary, and only in the short term.
I was on 40,000ui for five days, which is the equivalent hormone D in 100 multivitamins. I knew that I couldn’t obtain those levels with food or sun exposure, so I opted for short term supplementation in order to get back on track. Synthetic supplements have two major issues:
- They are only stored in the body for a few weeks to a few months, with higher UI supplements in the tens and hundreds of thousands lasting up to two months.
- High UI synthetics are normally D2, which is absorbed at a lower rate than synthetic D3, the “better” of the two synthetic D hormone supplements.
Because actual sun exposure can produce up to 10,000ui of hormone D in only 15 minutes, you can see how sun exposure gives you the benefits of lasting vitamin D stores without the harmful side effects.
You Can Do This
Remember, you only need levels of 20ng/ml. Your body has a natural upper limit of about 36ng/ml no matter how much sun exposure or foods you eat. It can be hard to shift our mindset from relying on synthetic supplements to shifting to natural forms of maintaining health, especially when the medical establishment creates doubt in our body’s ability to heal right from the beginning of our lives. However, it is important to believe in the balance that exists between us and nature and look to forgotten traditions, lifestyle and nutrition as ways to live longer, healthier and more fulfilled lives.