Vitamin D: it’s more than just a vitamin and an important part of the optimal healthy aging conversation.

Vitamins are defined as a substance the body requires but cannot make. In the case of vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” our bodies can convert the UVB rays of the sun into D. In the years since this substance was coined a vitamin, research has proved that it is actually a precursor hormone. Every cell in our body and all of our glands have receptors for vitamin D.

What does it do?

You might know D as one ingredient in your bone supplement or remember that drinking milk builds strong bones. How it helps with bone-building and maintaining bone is promoting intestinal absorption of calcium and phosphorous. Without enough D calcium cannot do the work of building or sustaining bone. In her latest book, Dr. Lani’s No-Nonsence Sun Health Guide, Dr. Lani warns, “Prolonged vitamin D deficiency can result in osteoporosis, rickets in children, (which has increased in recent years), and osteomalacia in adults, a condition sometimes referred to as “adult rickets.”
While the C-word, cancer, gets a lot of attention osteoporosis is more common and can be just a debilitating. 
Okay, so you knew about D and bones, what’s new and why am I such a D cheerleader?
One of the most exciting discoveries is the anti-inflammatory effect of optimal levels of D. Inflammation is at the root of or a by-product of (the science is out on this chicken and egg conundrum) many modern-day ills like diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and more. Prevent inflammation or even lower it and patients have better outcomes or do not succumb to the disease at all.
All of the following have been and continue to be researched as benefitting from optimal vitamin D levels:
  • Thryoid and adrenal function
  • kidney function
  • helps blood sugar levels in the pancreas
  • lung health and respiratory conditions
  • better outcomes for certain cancers, especially breast cancer (Read more about that here and here
  • heart health and normal blood pressure
  • balancing sex hormones in men and women

And a whole host of others.

Where do we get it?

While it’s true that exposing your skin to the sun for 15 to 20 minutes daily–safely for your skin type and not at the hottest time of the day–will contribute to the D circulating in your system, most people will not get close to that, some will get no sun exposure at all. Sunscreen use and people shunning the sun have contributed to low D levels.
In 2019, it was estimated that 1B people worldwide were deficient in D. Since COVID19 entered the picture more people are stuck indoors or not enjoying outdoor activities like they used to. This will likely lead to more deficiencies and the problems that follow.
What about food?
D requires fat to be absorbed and is found in foods rich in fat such as salmon, egg yolks, some dairy products, and enriched foods. The only vegetable source for D are mushrooms though it’s D2 which does not raise levels as well as animal sources that produce D3. Most people will not consume enough for D-rich foods to raise and keep levels at optimal.
How much do you need?
If you only read western medicine blogs and consult with your traditional MD, you may be misled about how much is therapeutic or optimal based on current science.
There are as many suggested ranges for optimal vitamin D levels as there are traditional and alternative experts with opinions.  I’ve settled on sharing Dr. Chris Kresser’s because it sums up the research that I align with. In his article, “Vitamin D, more is not better” he concludes,
Based on my assessment of the literature and my own clinical experience,
I believe the functional range for 25(OH)D is around 35 to 60 ng/mL.
However, I can’t stress enough that there is significant variation among populations.
For those with non-white ancestry, the optimal range may be a bit lower.
For those with autoimmune disease, the optimal range might be a bit higher (45 to 60 ng/mL) to maximize the immune-regulating benefits of vitamin D.”
What test should you ask for?
By now you may be wondering if you are deficient, borderline, or are rocking an optimal D level. Here’s the test you must ask for. Be sure you check once you get the scrip, doctors can mix up the two types. The one you want is a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. 
If your levels fall within the reference ranges above you are good for now. Test once per year as absorption and production rates can change. If you are low or on the low end of your category, consider adding a supplement.

What if you don’t want to see a doctor?

There are lots of online labs to choose from if you want to DIY your vitamin D level optimizing. I trust Life Extension Foundation for all of their products. They have a blood test sale annually but they are reasonable at any time. Everywell is another company that is reputable and reasonable. 

Choose the right supplement and right dose
Supplementing with Vitamin D3 is inexpensive and safe. Once you know your current level you’ll be able to choose the dose you need to raise it.
If you are not working with a health professional here’s a calculator that will tell you how much you need to take to raise your serum D level. Not sure what level is best for you? Review the above recommendations and strive for a midpoint. 
Vitamin D is safe to very high levels. Here’s a cool factoid to consider. (Though I’m not suggesting you revisit your infant days and mega-dose).
Dr. Julian Whitaker who no longer practices, told a story about very high dosing with D. “From 1955 to 1990, all East German babies received 600,000 IU of Vitamin D every three months from birth through 18 months of age–a total of 3,600,000 IU. No toxicity was reported and East German children were surprisingly healthy despite substandard living conditions.”

How to choose the right supplement

Supplementing with Vitamin D3 is inexpensive and safe. Since D is fat-soluble make sure you buy a gel cap not a tablet. Gelcaps use things like olive or coconut oil as the base. You can take your dose all at once or split into two per day. This is a tiny supplement and easy to swallow. Reliable brands are Life Extension Foundation, Blue Bonnet, Swansons, and New Chapter. You will find various doses from 250 IUs to 10,000 IUs. Some docs recommend upping your dose during flu season but I would only do that under the care of a doc or licensed practitioner. 

Even if you aren’t a supplement person and don’t take anything else, I’d make this one an exception. For $5 a month or less, you could be helping your body fend off intruders and shorten the time it takes to get well when you do get something.

Vitamin D isn’t a miracle cure but the many ways this one safe, effective substance supports a healthy body feels pretty miraculous to this old girl.