The Sun's Gift
Many of us think of vitamin D as a second tier vitamin we get free from the sun, if we think of it at all. However, a huge body of recent research suggests that this nutrient is much more than this. It is intimately involved in immunity, inflammation, brain health and gene regulation, to name a few of its functions. In fact, there is now an understanding that this nutrient is not technically a vitamin at all. It is actually a powerhouse hormone precursor but it is considered too late and too confusing to change the name.
There are suggestions that avoiding the sun to protect from skin cancer may sometimes prove detrimental in that the associated lack of vitamin D production can have serious consequences. There is a dual concern here in that coating your highly absorbent skin with sunscreen containing triethylamine (promoting nitrosamines), parabens and benzene compounds may actually be more damaging than the sunlight you are trying to avoid. It is unfortunate that we must all become label Nazis to protect our families, but there is minimal regulation upon anything (including cosmetics) that goes on our skin, even though it can be more efficiently absorbed than what goes in our mouth.
The Vitamin D Phenomenon
A large number of studies have strongly linked vitamin D deficiency to a range of brain disorders including depression, autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. It has also been profoundly linked to many forms of cancer. Ironically, this deficiency is a major player in melanoma and the demonisation of the sun may actually increase rather than reduce skin cancer. Heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, infertility and arthritis are all much more common in the D deficient. It's not just about enhanced disease resistance and protection; there is also a newly discovered link to detoxification, particularly with mercury. Vitamin D radically increases the levels of intracellular glutathione.
Amidst the plethora of new research, the most compelling finding is that higher vitamin D levels significantly reduce mortality rates from all causes. It now seems that vitamin D may be the key to proper gene expression.
The Gene Key
Every cell throughout the body has its own DNA library, which provides the information that allows optimal response to various stimuli. Activated vitamin D unlocks that library and, when it is deficient, cell function is impaired and problems arise. As a result of a flurry of recent research it is now known that 3000 of the 10,000 genes in our body are up-regulated by vitamin D and there are many more to come. The importance of these findings cannot be over-emphasised. We cannot achieve our natural protective potential in the absence of sufficient vitamin D and a plague of degenerative disease may be the result. The shortages are widespread. In Dr Michael Holick's book, "The Vitamin D Solution", the author cites evidence that over 200 million Americans are deficient in this nutrient. Closer to home, it is estimated that over 70% of Queenslanders are also deficient and this is the Sunshine State! A Canadian study claimed that the death rate in that country would fall by 16% (37,000 deaths) if serum levels of vitamin D were lifted.
Breastfeeding and the D Factor
Ten percent of annual worldwide births are premature and each year, one million of these babies die within the first month. Optimising vitamin D levels can drastically reduce pre-term births.
In a recent US study by Hollis and Wagner, mothers who supplemented with 4000 IU of vitamin D (10 x RDA) during pregnancy experienced half the risk of premature birth and fewer "small for date" babies. There was also a 25% reduction in infection and the "core morbidities of pregnancy" were reduced by 30% including diabetes, high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia. It was also found that babies supplemented with vitamin D after birth had fewer colds and less eczema.
Sourcing Your Daily D
Calciferol (vitamin D) comes from two sources – food and sunlight – but, as is so often the case, there are secrets to accessing good levels. Liver, egg yolks and fish have the highest levels, but it matters how they were produced. The liver must be organic or at least sourced from free range, grass fed animals. The liver is the principle detox organ and it is seriously stressed in chemically produced animals. Egg yolks must also come from free range birds or the D levels suffer. Finally, the fish must not be farmed and it should be from oily, omega-3 rich species like salmon and mackerel. Sardines are a great source as they are oil-dense and largely free from the mercury that contaminates larger species like tuna.
Cod liver oil is where fish and liver come together and it is no surprise that it is the highest natural source of vitamin D (containing 2000 IU per tablespoon). For years I shuddered at the thought of cod liver oil, even though it is one of the very best supplements. It is a great source of omega-3 fats and it is also the highest natural source of vitamin A (containing 9500 IU per tablespoon), but it was also my principle punishment for swearing when I stayed at my Grandmother's house as a child. The dreaded tablespoon forced between gritted teeth certainly slowed my foul language but it fuelled a lifetime hatred of the good oil. The fishy reflux lasting for up to four hours further sullied any future for this oil in my supplement cupboard. However, a couple of years ago a highly regarded, elderly German naturopath shared a gem that allowed me a pain-free return to this remarkable food. The trick is to squeeze half a lemon into a glass with a tablespoon of oil and stir them together before sculling the mixture. The fish flavour is completely masked and there is absolutely no subsequent reflux. A tablespoon of cod liver oil with lemon juice each morning and repeated in the evening is probably the single best health-boosting supplement out there!
There are also rules in relation to sunlight. You need to catch the rays for 20 minutes between 10 am and 2 pm, at least three times a week. You also need to achieve maximum body exposure, to maintain healthy vitamin D levels. There are also a number of other factors driving your capacity to produce vitamin D from sunlight.
Detailing the D Drivers
Skin colour and current tan level are factors determining the sunbathing time required to optimise D levels. While three 20-minute sessions is sufficient for most Caucasians, this is not the case for those with darker skin. It can take up to five times longer for darker-skinned people. The key for lighter skins is to seek exposure until you achieve a light pink shade. There is no vitamin D production beyond that point; it is then all about skin damage and increased cancer risk.
Weather conditions, latitude and season are also players in achieving optimum D levels. Air pollution and cloud cover can have obvious impact and there is four times more production at the equator in comparison to the arctic.
Sunscreen, clothing and bathing can also negatively affect your production of vitamin D. You should never use sunscreen during your three weekly 20-minute full body sessions. You should minimise clothing and there is also a caution about bathing following your time in the sun. The newly produced vitamin D can be easily washed from the skin's surface before it is absorbed. This is much more likely with the use of soap, so your shower following sun exposure should ideally involve just soaping under your arms and groin to maximise your D uptake.
The Top Seven Vitamin D Tips
A blood level of less than 20 ng/mL is considered a serious deficiency with increased risk of breast and prostate cancer and autoimmune disorders.
Maintaining a level of 55 ng/mL is now considered optimal for cancer protection.
Cholecalciferol or vitamin D3 is the best form. Avoid vitamin D2, the synthetic form.
Vitamin D deficiency has been clearly linked to Metabolic Syndrome (a cluster of symptoms including abdominal fat, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and high triglycerides).
Steroidal painkillers like prednisone reduce calcium absorption and impair vitamin D metabolism.
Boron deficiency also reduces vitamin D production. Boron deficiency has recently been linked to arthritis, as has a shortage of calciferol. Five mg of boron each day, with two tablespoons of cod liver oil, offers the equivalent omega-3 of ten fish oil capsules along with two other key nutrients to ease joint pain.
A recent Australian neonatal study found a 100% higher likelihood of Schizophrenia in those neonates with low vitamin D. There also seemed a higher risk for those with excess vitamin D. As with all things, balance is critical. The "Goldilocks" principle ("just right") applies everywhere in Nature. If you are pregnant, it is advisable to check your vitamin D levels before supplementing to make sure that you get it "just right".
The Western world is mired in a flood of degenerative illness and yet there is compelling research to suggest that a simple, naturally-occurring precursor to a steroid hormone (mistakenly called "vitamin" D) could be linked to the flood. The research is recent and, based upon the pitiful uptake time displayed by the modern medical machine in the past (homocysteine, magnesium deficiency, selenium shortage, etc), it is advisable to take matters into your own hands. We have reached a point in our social evolution where we are often obliged to reclaim responsibility for our own health. The urgent correction of a vitamin D deficiency (based on blood tests) is a prime example of this phenomenon.