Spring is Here, Sun is Shining, Do We Need Vitamin D Supplements?

Spring is here! Starting today, days are getting longer, and we can spend more time in the sun. One of the benefits is that our body, cool factory that it is, can manufacture a very important vitamin just from our skin getting exposed to sunshine – vitamin D.

In the past few years, there has been a huge growth in vitamin D supplement sales. Why would anybody by supplements for something that is available for free? The answer is not so simple…

What you need to know:

First, a bit of a shocker: Vitamin D is technically not really a vitamin. According to author and nutrition professor Marion Nestle of NYU:

Vitamin D is weird because it is not a vitamin. Vitamins are chemicals found in foods that our bodies cannot make. But hardly any natural foods contain this particular chemical. Plants have none. Meat has little. Wild fatty fish like salmon have reasonable amounts, but farmed fish have much less. Fish liver has enormous amounts, but nobody eats it. We call this chemical vitamin D only because it was discovered at the same time as other vitamins. Read more…

So what is vitamin D?

It is actually a hormone that our body produces as a result of complex chemical reactions triggered by sun exposure. Vitamin D is critical for proper bone health. It helps calcium get absorbed in bones and strengthen them. But as a hormone, it probably has a few additional uses in our body.

The FDA currently recommends 400 IU (international units) of vitamin D per day. A brief exposure to sunlight can create 1000-2000 IUs, so that should be enough. Unfortunately, this is not always true. If you live in Northern states, the suns rays are much weaker in the winter. In addition, most of your skin is covered so you are not absorbing much sunshine. If you have dark skin, you are also going to be absorbing much less sunshine. And if you apply sunscreen, no hormone D either…

Additionally, some scientists are challenging the FDAs daily value of 400 IU, stating that it should be bumped up to at least 1000-2000 IU.

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine published a report recommending a slight increase to 600 IU:

In this report, the IOM proposes new reference values that are based on much more information and higher-quality studies than were available when the values for these nutrients were first set in 1997. The IOM finds that the evidence supports a role for vitamin D and calcium in bone health but not in other health conditions. Further, emerging evidence indicates that too much of these nutrients may be harmful, challenging the concept that “more is better.”

So, should you be taking a vitamin D supplement?

In the past we were strongly opposed to this. Our philosophy is “get nutrients from food”. Unfortunately vitamin D is very hard to come by from food sources, and if sunshine is an issue, one could potentially be at a deficiency. Science is still trying to sort out how to standardize the measurement of vitamin D levels in our bodies, so it is also difficult to assess if you are deficient or not.

Our recommendation:  consult with a dietitian or a physician to assess you and your family’s specific needs. If you are taking vitamin D supplements, take your daily pill / chewable candy at mealtime, as vitamin D is fat soluble. 

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  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Vitamin D is one of the supplements that I’ve been taking regularly. I forget where I saw it, but most Americans are Vitamin D deficient.

    • Nelson

      Most medical journals and textbooks state many Americans are Vitamin D deficient which is true. But what can one do. The suns activates the vitamin D, but we say the sun’s rays are cancer causing. What would be apprioriate to say is how long we should stay in the sun to achieve adequete levels. My nursing textbooks have stated that the sun is not as effective with activating vit D in the North. Have others heard of this?

      • Gerome

        Nelson, your texts are correct, folks in the northern parts of the country don’t get the same exposure in the same time as those in the south (that old angle of the sun through the atmosphere thing). I think the vitamin D from a pill is one of the few solutions that many agree makes sense. It’s really hard to get D from food. It can be dangerous to get too much sun. Like many things — find balance in the middle.

  • Homecookedhealthy

    Great articles.  I agree that the sun is one of the best ways to get your vitamin D (not too much but just enough).  If not then research and take a good suppliment.  We use the Maximized Living brand.  Even my 5 year old can take this and we’ve seen good results.  A bit pricer than a GMC version, but also a better quality.

  • http://www.turntrim.com/ David Egan

    Nice article. Safe sun exposure is probably the way to go. There are some good guidelines from the National Institutes of Health here: 

    To cut through the jargon, according to some researchers adequate sun exposure for vitamin D synthesis amounts to 5–30 minutes of exposure between 10 am and 3 pm at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen. Obviously this depends on how strong the sun is in your location (I’m in cloudy Ireland), and you should never allow your skin to be reddened by sun exposure. Also interesting is that vitamin D can be stored by the body – so adequate exposure in spring, summer & autumn can keep you going through winter.

  • Anonymous

    Okay, here is what I don’t get.  Our parents never took vitamin D supplements. My mom is now 94, and many of my friends parents have lived to advanced ages.  Yet, my doctor tells me the blood test shows I am vitamin D deficient, so I started taking it.  The reality is that too many people are making too much money scaring us into taking all these supplements.  How do I know what the truth actually is?

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