What you will learn from this article:
– Benefits of optimal levels of vitamin D, especially for hormones, autoimmunity, breast cancer, inflammation, and hair loss
– How to test for vitamin D level: labs and self-test
– Can you get too much vitamin D?
– Recommended ranges, doses and forms of vitamin D
– Foods high in vitamin D
– When supplementing, why formulate vitamin D with vitamins K1 and K2?
– Getting vitamin D from the sun: duration, latitude/altitude
– Does sun cause skin cancer?
Vitamin D has gotten a lot of press in recent years, and it’s easy to understand why. This important nutrient has a huge impact on your health and because its receptor is present in most cells and tissues in the body, it helps regulate multiple organ systems (hormonal, skeletal, gastrointestinal, nervous, skin, and more) – more on this in just a moment.
Our best source of vitamin D is the sun, and while our ancestors used to spend a majority of their time outdoors, most people now spend daylight hours at desks under artificial lights. This explains the vitamin D deficiency pandemic – and this article will help you fix it.
Benefits of optimal levels of vitamin D
Vitamin D has so many health benefits, protecting against or improving symptoms in such a wide range of health conditions, a book could be written about it. However, here are just a few benefits of vitamin D that are especially relevant to women’s health, hormone balance and general optimal health.
Lowers Hashimoto’s Antibodies
If your TPO antibodies are elevated, vitamin D can help. I have consistently seen patients dosing up their vitamin D3 and seeing their TPO antibodies lowering. This is important as these antibodies show the level of attack of the immune system on the thyroid.
In this study, patients were given 1200-4000 IU of vitamin D3 for 4 months, 83% of the subjects have found their TPO antibodies to drop by 20.8%.
To better understand Hashimoto’s and what tests to ask for, go here.
Builds Stronger Bones
What most people don’t realize is that vitamin D is a precursor hormone for a powerful steroid hormone in your body called calcitriol, which is critical in bone strength and cell regeneration; in other words: slowing down the aging process.
Optimal levels of vitamin D help promote bone health by maintaining good levels of minerals in the body and by preventing the breakdown of bone by suppressing parathyroid hormone. This helps prevent the softening of bones in infants and children (rickets) and in adults (osteomalacia). As we age, vitamin D’s impact on hormones and mineral absorption helps prevent osteoporosis.
Can Help Breast Cancer
Checking for Vitamin D levels is one of the first things even traditional oncologists do in the treatment of breast cancers, and it’s a baseline protocol for integrative breast cancer treatment plans.
This study has found that breast cancer patients had lower levels of vitamin D. But, you don’t have to (and should not be!) waiting for a diagnosis to fix your vitamin D levels if they are low.
This Stanford University School of Medicine study (and there are several others) have found that vitamin D3 inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells and stimulates apoptosis – which is self-killing of cancer cells.
Balances Blood Sugar Levels
Healthy levels of vitamin D help make sure we’re producing adequate levels of insulin, one of our blood sugar regulating hormones (along with glucagon). Low vitamin D levels are associated with insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and Type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, vitamin D deficiency in children seems to increase a person’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes later on. One study even found that women with low vitamin D intake during pregnancy had babies with a higher risk of type 1 diabetes.
Some but not all studies have found a correlation between low vitamin D levels and elevated C-Reactive Protein marker. The CRP marker is used as an indication of inflammation which is the underlying cause of most chronic conditions, including autoimmunity, cardiovascular conditions and metabolic disorders including type II diabetes.
In my experience, women with hormonal imbalances also experience some level of inflammation. This is especially true, not exclusive, for women with PCOS.
Upping your vitamin D is one of the easy tools you can add right away.
Reverses Estrogen Dominance
You may know by now that I’m passionate about estrogen dominance – a condition that most women experience and most have no idea they have. I have written lots more about it; you can start with this article to find out what this condition is all about.
Symptoms include PMS, infertility, fibrocystic breasts, breast lumps, irregular periods, fibroids, endometriosis and thyroid nodules among others. Estrogenic cancers include breast, uterine, ovarian, lung (in non-smokers) and prostate cancers.
Depression is a complex condition which can and should be addressed by holistically assessing a person’s nutritional deficiencies, inflammation, genetics, diet and hormonal imbalances. My friend Dr. Kelly Brogan is an award-winning expert on treating depression with means other than antidepressants.
One easy thing to look at is your vitamin D levels. I have witnessed many women experiencing a lift of depression after upping their vitamin D levels. Studies also support this statement.
It is a well-known fact that patients with autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s, Graves’, celiac, Crohn’s, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis (MS) are chronically low in vitamin D.
The previous assumption was that low vitamin D levels cause autoimmunity.
New research from Autoimmunity Research Foundation shows that the vitamin D receptors get downregulated by pathogens (such as parasites, bacteria, viruses, and yeast) compromising the update of vitamin D. These pathogens can be the primary causes of autoimmunity. Upping vitamin D levels (through sun exposure, more on that below) and/or supplementation, is key in managing an autoimmune condition.
Helps Gut Bacteria in Producing Vitamin B5
We are still discovering the power of gut bacteria and what helps and what destroys them. This study showed that low levels of vitamin D changed the intestinal microbiome reducing vitamin B5 (pantothenic) production in the gut.
If you interested in the connection between vitamin Bs and your hormones, check out this article.
Helps with Hair Loss
Hair loss is often associated with thyroid disease, but it’s also possible that vitamin D deficiency plays a role.
Two common types of alopecia, or hair loss, are alopecia areata (AA), an autoimmune condition, and androgenic (or androgenetic) alopecia. Scientists have found lower levels of vitamin D receptors (VDRs) in the blood and tissue of patients with both conditions. Dysfunction in this receptor ultimately leads to problems with hair growth. Blood levels of vitamin D were also lower in people with pattern hair loss.
Reverses and Prevents Anemia
This study has found that chronically low levels in vitamin D can cause anemia. This is interesting as we mostly think of anemia as a result of low iron and/or vitamin B12. We now know vitamin D can also play a role. Symptoms of anemia include deep fatigue, rapid heartbeat, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, pale skin, leg cramps and insomnia.
Vitamin D may be helpful for getting a good night’s sleep. Preliminary studies indicate healthy levels of vitamin D may help you bank more hours per night and also help you to stay asleep throughout the night.
In fact, vitamin D deficiency may even be a contributing factor to the growing epidemic of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition in which an individual stops breathing multiple times throughout the night, resulting in unrefreshing sleep and increased risk for a number of other health conditions, including metabolic syndrome.
Testing for Vitamin D Levels
Even the most conservative doctors today would agree to run a vitamin D test for you.
The Vitamin D Council recommends (and provides access to) the 25(OH)D test, pronounced, “Twenty-five Hydroxy D” test. There is another type of blood test for vitamin D, which is called a 1,25(OH)₂D test, but the 25(OH)D test most accurately reports your body’s vitamin D stores.
Recommended Ranges and Dosages of Vitamin D
If you go by the ranges found in labs or given by traditional doctors, “healthy blood levels” of vitamin D are from 30 to 100 ng/ml. If you are below 10, pretty much everyone agrees that you are severely deficient, and if you are below 30, the Endocrine Society and the Vitamin D Council still maintain that you are not getting enough.
Functional medicine’s recommended range for healthy people is 60 to 80 ng/ml, especially so for people with a family or personal health history of cancers and autoimmune conditions.
If your levels are below 60 ng/ml, functionally trained doctors recommend a dose of vitamin D3 in the range of 5,000 to 8,000 UI per day. It may take 3 to 4 months to get into a healthy range. You can then switch to a maintenance dose of 2,000 UI per day. You can easily get a blood test done to confirm it.
For people with Hashimoto’s Disease (and any autoimmune conditions), it’s very very important for your vitamin D levels to be in the upper ranges of 60.
Can You Get Too Much Vitamin D?
Short answer: Yes. Because it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin D is not so easily excreted from the body as water-soluble vitamins, the B’s and C. It’s possible to end up with toxicity, so don’t go over the recommended range for supplementation.
How To Get Started
There are a couple of things you could do right away:
– Self-assess to see if you are indeed vitamin D deficient (see below checklist)
– Get 30 min (or till your skin turns pink) sunlight – not just on your face but on your legs and arms. Your face is only 9% of your body. Arms are 18%, tummy 18%, back 18%, and legs are 36%. So, I say: dress down and hit the sun.
Checklist to self-assess your levels of vitamin D
Take this test and see how many you are ticking “yes”
– I rarely go out in the sun
– I put on sunscreen before I leave the house
– My clothes cover most of my body
– I live above 35 degrees latitude in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere (in other words north of Atlanta and LA or south of Sydney-Australia, Santiago-Chile or Buenos Aires-Argentina)
– I do not take a vitamin D supplement
– I do not eat wild, oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines) two or three times a week
– I do not eat a lot of mushrooms
– I drink fewer than 10 glasses of fortified milk or orange juice a day
– I’m dark skinned
– I’m older than 60
– I’m younger than 20
– I’m overweight and carry significant fat
– When I press firmly on my sternum (breastbone around your heart), it hurts
– When I press firmly on my shins, it hurts
– I feel less energy and muscle strength than I should
– I’m depressed
– I have an autoimmune disorder (like Hashimoto’s, Graves’, Celiac, etc)
If you checked more than 3 of the above, there is a chance you are vitamin D deficient. The source of this checklist is from Dr. Michael Holick, the leading expert on vitamin D and author of “The Vitamin D Solution.”
Vitamin D from food
Other than fortified products (such as vitamin D in milk), there aren’t a ton of great natural foods sources for vitamin D.
The best foods for increasing vitamin D intake are lard, some seafood including fatty fish, cod liver oil, and egg yolk. Lard has 13 IUs of Vitamin D per tablespoon, which still takes a while to add up if you’re going for 5000.
Per 100 grams (3 ½ ounces), Vitamin D shows up in the following amounts:
Cod Liver Oil: 10,000 IU
Sockeye Salmon (canned, solids, without skin and bones): 859 IU
Smoked Ciscoes: 530 IU
Egg yolk (raw, fresh): 218 IU
Lard (Pork Fat): 102 IU
Vitamin D From the Sun
A quick and simple comparison for you: you get 400 units of vitamin D from a glass of fortified milk (which no adult should be drinking) versus 20,000 units of Vitamin D from 30 min of unprotected sun exposure (or until your skin turns slightly pink).
Vitamin D is created by your skin when exposed to the sun. So what’s the best way to get vitamin D? Get outside. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes of morning sun (between the hours of 8 am and 10 am). It is also recommended not to show for 20 to 30 minutes after sunbathing for the skin to produce vitamin D. So, hold off that shower!
Latitude (how far north or south you live) could make a huge difference in the amount of vitamin D you can make from sunlight exposure.
For example, if you go outside on a clear day in Boston (42.2°N) anytime from November to February you will not make any vitamin D at all – even if you decide to brave the weather and wear a tank top.
It’s worse farther north in Canada. If you’re in Edmonton (52°N), you can’t make vitamin D from October through March. You’ve just got a 6-month window to get all your sun exposure in. If you live up north and want to get some vitamin D production in the winter, you’re going to have to go south, say, Los Angeles (34°N) or Puerto Rico (18°N).
However, it’s possible that this only applies to those who are living outside the area from which they originated, heritage-wise. Read more from Chris Masterjohn here.
What about altitude (mountains vs valleys)? That can make a difference, too. After all, the higher up you are, the shorter the distance the UV rays have to travel to reach you. Depending on how high up you are, your ability to make vitamin D could be twice or even 4 times what it was at a lower altitude.
You can calculate your potential for making vitamin D where you live (latitude and altitude) on this website.
Does sun cause skin cancer?
So what about skin cancer? For more education on this topic and how sun exposure actually prevents skin cancer, I recommend reading this article to understand that sun exposure does not cause cancer.
There’s an unjust fear of skin cancer and plenty of medical studies to debunk it. One such study conducted in Tarapaca University in Arica, Chile found an association between melanoma skin cancer and vitamin D deficiency.
As a world traveler and someone who grew up in the tropics, I will share with you that local people there have not used sunblocks and sunscreens for generations and skin cancer has never been a reported health issue. Their brown skin makes them less likely to get sunburned as compared to a Caucasian skin but not any more or less likely to develop skin cancer.
The same way all fats were demonized and made to fear as a cause of cardiovascular diseases, I feel like the sun and skin cancer has been taken on the same trajectory – to the great benefit of the skincare companies and sunscreen lotion manufacturers.
Bottom line: Sensible exposure to the sun is not only healthy but necessary – 15 to 20 minutes in the morning sun, between 10 am and 12 pm is optimal unless you are experiencing any specific skin conditions.
During winter, the option is vitamin D supplementation.
Types of Vitamin D for Supplementation
During autumn and winter months, or if sun exposure is simply not an option for you, you may need vitamin D supplementation because it’s hard to get it from food alone (see the above vitamin D content from food).
There are two types of vitamin D: D2 and D3. Vitamin D2 is produced in mushrooms when they are exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D3 is naturally present in animal fats. Studies show supplementing with D3 is better than D2 at raising your blood levels of the active form of vitamin D, calcifediol. In one study it was even twice as effective.
The vitamin D supplement I recommend to help get your numbers up is D3 Maximus. The D3 Maximus has vitamin K (both K1 and K2) added to it.
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Why Add K1 and K2 to a Vitamin D Supplement?
Vitamin K works synergistically with vitamin D for a number of functions in the body, including the regulation of oxidative stress levels (inflammation). It has been found that supplementing the two nutrients together is more effective than either one on its own.
Vitamin K comes in two forms: K1 (sourced from green leafy vegetables) and K2 (mainly found in fermented dairy but also produced in the intestine) and they have slightly different functions. There’s evidence that both forms are important for good health.
Vitamin K works with vitamin D to make sure calcium gets deposited in your bones and teeth rather than places it does belong, like in your kidneys (kidney stones) and blood vessels (plaque).
Bottom line is: Replenishing vitamin D levels is not difficult. If you are low, allow 4 to 6 months of a higher dose of 5,000 to 8,000 UI per day of vitamin D3. I like the D3 formulation with K1 and K2 added (most women are also deficient in these) – the one I personally use and recommend is D3 Maximus.