Vitamin D: The Sunshine Hormone by Dr. Mark Hoch
November 13, 2014
Here is some practical information about “vitamin D” because you may be hearing some of the buzz about it in the media.
Actually, it has been known for some time that vitamin D is very important to many aspects of our health, not just our bones. Technically, vitamin D is not really a vitamin because our bodies can make it from sunshine.
Vitamin D: NOT a vitamin
It is a very important hormone that helps us absorb calcium from our food to make healthy bones and also for many aspects of our immune system. It is even important for mental health.
Most recommendations on desirable blood levels and daily intake of vitamin D are based only on what is needed for healthy bones. Even the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations to the US Government on vitamin D only relate to bone health. They did not look at other areas of health even though there are hundreds of published scientific studies from all over the world consistently show that vitamin D deficiency is very common and can have serious negative consequences.
Vitamin D deficiency is especially common when you live far from the equator and do not have strong sun all year round. Also, many of us are not getting adequate sun exposure in the summer due to concerns of contracting skin cancer, or because we work indoors.
In the North Carolina winter, if we’re outside in the sunshine with exposed skin we could make some vitamin D. Yet, how many of us are outside with exposed skin this time of year on a regular basis??
How much is enough?
Very solid scientific evidence shows that we need a blood level of at least 30 to 32 ng/ml of vitamin D to have healthy bones.
There is also strong evidence that adequate levels of vitamin D help prevent many types of infections including influenza.
A Japanese study showed better flu protection from taking vitamin D than from the flu shot. This makes sense because vitamin D turns on genes in our white blood cells that code for internal antibiotics against bacteria, viruses and fungi.
Higher levels of vitamin D are also correlated with dramatically reduced risk of colon, breast cancer and other cancers.
Persons with blood levels above 40 can have much lower chances of getting colon cancer and women with levels above 50 can have much lower chances of getting breast cancer. It is known in particular that cells in the colon and rectum have receptors for vitamin D and vitamin D has some regulatory effect on cancer cells in including whether they grow and spread.
Do you have these symptoms?
Symptoms and medical problems related to low vitamin D include; osteoporosis, osteopenia, tiredness, low mood, difficulty concentrating, muscle pain (fibromyalgia), increased risk of getting cancer, significantly worse than average outcomes with treatment of breast cancer, and increased risk of infection including for influenza.
If you have any one of these problems it is a very good idea to get a vitamin D blood test.
The most helpful test is a 25 hydroxy vitamin D level.
Many integrative medicine experts also recommend getting a baseline vitamin D test as part of an annual physical as low levels can predispose a person to all of the problems listed above.
Recommended blood level for optimal health is 50-80.
Treatment for low vitamin D is easily accomplished with over-the-counter vitamin D supplements that can come in small capsules or drops.
When vitamin D levels are low, it is my experience that taking 5,000 units of vitamin D3 every day for two months will usually bring the levels up into a healthy range.
Scientific studies show that this is a very safe dose to take and is not associated with any toxic effects.
Getting regular sun exposure in the summer months for 15 or 20 minutes a day can also be very helpful.
Of course, it is important avoid sunburn. However, we were designed to live in the sunshine and total avoidance of sunshine or using sun block all the time is not healthy either.
So, if you’re vitamin D is low, put a little sunshine in your body in the winter months by taking a good vitamin D supplement.
Most adults will do well with a preventive dose 2,000-5,000 units of vitamin D3 a day from October through April. Some people do not need supplementation and others may only need a low dose of 400 to 1000 units per day.
Of note, it is very important to take vitamin D with food that has some fat in it otherwise it will not be well absorbed.
If you have a problem with kidney stones do not take vitamin D supplements without consulting with your doctor.
High levels of vitamin D in persons who have kidney stone problems can make it easier to make kidney stones. This is not a concern for those who do not have kidney stone issues.
Unfortunately it is not easy to get vitamin D in your diet. Fish oil, such as cod liver oil, contains only 400 units of vitamin D3 per teaspoon. The only other food with vitamin D is sun dried mushrooms which contain Vitamin D2. Fresh or oven dried (commercially available products) mushrooms do not contain vitamin D.
Wishing you the best of health,
Mark L. Hoch, MD