The essential nutrient you need more of-and how to get it absolutely free

Published in: Dr. Jonathan Wright’s Nutrition & Healing

By: Jonathan V. Wright, MD

Vitamin D deficiency is making a roaring comeback. That means some of the conditions vitamin D plays a key role in preventing-like osteoporosis, and even prostate and breast cancer-are also on the rise. And, unfortunately, some of the things the “experts” have been telling us to do for years (in the name of good health and, of course, safety) have actually made the situation much worse. But there’s an easy solution to the vitamin D deficiency problem-and it’s not the one you might be thinking.

When you say “vitamin D” to most people, they automatically think: milk. The food industry added the vitamin to milk years ago: It was a cheap way to “protect” the public from deficiency. But it’s just not working. Besides, there are so many health problems linked to cow’s milk that it’s the last thing I’d recommend anyway.

Especially when the best source of vitamin D is even more widely available (not to mention cheaper). Certain wavelengths of sunlight (found in ultraviolet B, or UVB, rays) act on a cholesterol derivative in human skin, starting a chain of reactions, which ultimately produce vitamin D. So if it were possible for you to get enough sun, you wouldn’t have to worry about vitamin D.

The road to health disaster paved with “good” intentions

The problem is, hardly anyone does get enough sun these days.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, people lived mostly in the tropics and were exposed to strong sunlight year-round. And according to researchers, vitamin D deficiency didn’t appear to be a problem. But as people migrated away from the equator, they got less sun.

The sunlight/vitamin D deficiency situation grew even worse when people began moving in droves from rural areas to cities, where tall buildings blocked the sunlight.

Vitamin D itself was “discovered” in the early 20th century after generations of rickets out-breaks were traced back to extreme deficiencies of this vitamin. (Rickets causes bone deformities.) But, unfortunately, instead of emphasizing sunlight exposure-nature’s major source for vitamin D in humans-researchers, physicians, and public health “authorities” took a wrong turn years ago and started recommending vitamin D-“fortified” food as the major source. (Of course, food manufacturers certainly weren’t going to argue, since they would make more profit making and recommending vitamin D-enriched food than by emphasizing sunlight exposure.)

Suddenly, vitamin D was every-where. The eager food industry also started adding it to hot dogs, soda, bread, milk, and just about anything else they could think of-the Schlitz brewing company even added it to beer.

About this same time, sunscreen use was just getting started. Back then, it wasn’t nearly as common as it is today, but, then, people also weren’t constantly bombarded with propaganda warning of impending death if they didn’t use it or implying that it’s child abuse to slather kids with anything less than SPF 1,000.

Here’s the truth about sunscreen: Even a weak one (say SPF 8) blocks out most (at least 88 percent) of the sun’s UVB rays-the ones that trigger our bodies to make vitamin D. So that “all-sunscreen, all the time” rule is actually causing vitamin D deficiency.

And those vitamin-D enriched foods don’t even exist anymore to make up for it-manufacturers stopped making them when people started worrying about getting too much vitamin D. When you take vitamin D orally, there’s no immediate reaction if you take too much. It’s possible to take way too much vitamin D for months, even years, before symptoms of overdose (weakness, fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) become obvious. When the “experts” discovered that tidbit of information, they panicked and food manufacturers scrambled to take the extra vitamin D back out of the fortified foods. Milk was virtually the only vitamin-D fortified survivor, and, as I mentioned earlier, that definitely isn’t going to solve any health problems.

So it’s no wonder that vitamin D deficiency is becoming common again. But now that we’ve established why vitamin D deficiency is back, let’s move on and take a look at some of the specific conditions vitamin D can help protect you against.

One simple vitamin takes on three major health concerns: Cancer, osteoporosis–maybe even hypertension

In the 1940s, researchers observed a lower incidence of hyper-tension, colon, prostate, and breast cancers in people living in temperate latitudes. At the time, they couldn’t fully explain the connection, but eventually they realized that temperate zones get less sunlight, which means the people living there get less vitamin D.

Then in 1989, researchers reported that adults with higher levels (above 20 nanograms per deciliter) of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (an immediate precursor of “active” vitamin D) have 50 percent less risk of colon cancer.1 Since then, numerous studies have found that vitamin D actually inhibits the proliferation of cancerous prostate, breast, bone, and skin cells as well.

Though it hasn’t been 100 percent proven yet, it looks like vitamin D also plays a role in hypertension. Researchers noted this link almost 25 years ago, but didn’t have any explanation for it. But very recently, scientists discovered that vitamin D regulates renin and angiotensin, which are both involved in blood pressure regulation.2 Don’t get me wrong-not all cases of hypertension are due to insufficient vitamin D. But a significant proportion of “essential hypertension” (hypertension of unknown cause) can probably be traced back to vitamin D deficiency.

I mentioned rickets earlier and how it’s entirely preventable with vitamin D. The same is true with other bone problems. Vitamin D is crucial for optimal bone health and is a necessary part of osteoporosis prevention. Unfortunately, older Americans are most likely to be vitamin D deficient, so make sure you’re getting enough sunlight and taking supplemental vitamin D.

Risk of Type 1 diabetes drops by 80 percent

In addition to the observations on colon, breast, and prostate cancer, researchers have also long observed that multiple sclerosis, an auto-immune disease, is much more prevalent in “temperate latitudes” away from the Equator. Now there’s increasing evidence that cases of other auto-immune diseases also occur more frequently in areas farther north and south of the equator.

So far, it looks like additional sunlight exposure and/or vitamin D supplementation starting in childhood may significantly reduce the risk of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and even Type 1 diabetes. Type 1 (childhood-onset) diabetes isn’t generally thought of as an autoimmune disease, but it is. And just like the others, vitamin D helps to prevent it.

In one study, researchers divided pregnant women into several groups and review the women’s vitamin D intake. Several years later, the children born to the women who supplemented with vitamin D had fewer cases of Type 1 diabetes.3 In a follow-up study, children them-selves were given 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily starting at age 1. The researchers found that the children’s risk of Type 1 diabetes dropped by 80 percent.4

Psoriasis relief so effective even the mainstream accepts it

Psoriasis is probably vitamin D’s most well-known opponent– though most people think it’s “just” sunlight that’s doing the job. Well, in a way, it is, but the “job” sunlight is actually doing is triggering the body’s vitamin D production, which helps heal psoriasis.

Topical 1,25 dihydroxyvitamin D crème also works very well for many psoriasis patients. In fact, it’s even considered a mainstream treatment.

But a word to the wise: If you decide to use topical vitamin D therapy for psoriasis, make sure it’s the real thing. Patent medicine companies have developed synthetic versions that aren’t really vitamin D. If you’re worried that your doctor or pharmacist won’t give you the real deal, contact one of the organizations listed in the “Resources” box on page 8 for a list of physicians near you who will.

The easiest way to tell if you’re getting enough of this vital nutrient

So with all the research in favor of vitamin D, how can you be sure you’re getting enough-but not too much? Well, the best source of vitamin D-sunlight-actually has two built-in “overdose indicators.” The first is sunburn. When you start to get slightly pink, you’ve reached the limit of safe vitamin D. And you’re not likely to go out in the sun again until your pinkness subsides. The body’s other built-in vitamin-D regulator is tanning. Increasing pigment in the skin blocks the formation of vitamin D. So the more you tan, the less vitamin D you get. With nature’s preferred vitamin D “delivery system” (sunlight) there’s no chance of overdose.

When you do need supplements

If you live in one of the temperate zones, though, it’s always a good idea to take vitamin D supplements too-especially during the fall, winter, and early spring. In non-tropical latitudes, UVB rays don’t even penetrate through the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface in late fall, winter, and early spring, so even sun-exposed skin doesn’t form much (if any) vitamin D for most of the year. In fact, researchers have found that in wintertime, practically no vitamin D at all is formed in sunlight exposed skin if you live north of 35º latitude (which is about the equivalent of Los Angeles and Charlotte, NC).

If you’re nervous about taking oral vitamin D supplements because of the possibility of overdose, I have some good news: Researchers have been studying safety limits for years and have discovered that they were actually being a bit too cautious. A few years ago, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published an article re-examining the upper limits of vitamin D safety.5 That study concluded that the often-mentioned upper limit of vitamin D safety, 2,000 IU daily, “is too low by at least 5-fold.” Instead, they suggested that 10,000 IU daily might be a better “safe upper limit”.

The same journal published a follow-up study in 2001.6 This time, the researchers asked 61 healthy men and women to take either 1,000 IU or 4,000 IU of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) daily for two to five months, starting in January or February. Levels of vitamin D3 increased to “high-normal” in nearly all those studied. And none developed higher-than-normal serum vitamin D3 levels. The researchers concluded “4,000 IU of vitamin D3 to be a safe [daily] intake” for adults.

But, as I mentioned above, my first recommendation for assuring sufficient vitamin D is to get enough non-winter sunshine without the use of sunscreen to make your skin turn faintly pink. At that point, get out of the sun.

Each day that you don’t get enough sun to turn slightly pink, you should take 2,000-3,000 units of vitamin D in supplement form. (For children over 1 year of age, 400 IU daily is a minimum. 1,000 IU daily is probably better.)

If you’re past 35, it’s probably a good idea to consider taking up to 4,000 IU daily to help prevent osteopenia and osteoporosis. This is especially important if you have a family history of this problem.

Too little, too much- now vitamin D supplements come in doses “just right”

Over the counter vitamin D has been available in multi-vitamin supplements and individual vitamin capsules for years, but only in quantities of 200-400 IU-at most. Or you can get 50,000 IU vitamin D capsules by prescription. But until recently, there was no middle ground. Now, though, 1,000, 2,000, and 5,000 IU capsules are available in some natural food stores, compounding pharmacies, and through the Tahoma Clinic Dispensary.

Although research has found these levels of oral vitamin D intake to be safe, it’s easy enough to be absolutely sure with a simple, inexpensive blood test: Excess vitamin D causes an elevation of serum calcium, which any doctor or lab can test for. Most labs can also test your levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D, or, if you’re really particular (and willing to spend more money), you can ask to be tested for the “active” form of the vitamin, 1,25 di-hydroxyvitamin D.

Whatever test you decide to take, don’t let the “experts” out there scare you out of the sun or out of the supplement aisle of your local natural food store: They’re your very best options for getting the vitamin D your body needs. JVW

Citations available upon request and on the Nutrition & Healing website: