Before launching in to this vital topic, let’s think about why we might want to maintain optimal levels of D3, the active form of vitamin D, in our bodies. Vitamin D is involved in keeping the immune system healthy and some hospitals currently dealing with COVID-19 are treating patients with supplementation of this important hormone/fat-soluble vitamin. It’s essential to bone health, it has been shown to be deficient in those suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) and it’s essential in energy production and generally feeling good.
It’s hardly surprising that its benefits are far-reaching, since vitamin D receptors have been found in 300 locations in the body (so far – no doubt there will be more discoveries in the next few years). Low vitamin D levels correlate with the increased risk of certain types of cancer, often associated with the increased levels of IGF-1 which occur when vitamin D levels are low (high IGF-1 is a risk factor for breast and prostate cancer).
Certain autoimmune disorders correlate with low vitamin D levels. Anecdotal evidence exists that flares of SLE (systemic lupus erythematosus) are less acute and can be controlled with Vitamin D supplementation.
Indeed, whole books have been written about Vitamin D. For example, Dr Michael Holick reports in his book The Vitamin D Solution that after several months on supplementation with 2000IU per day, participants upregulated 291 genes that were responsible for 80 metabolic processes, ranging from improving DNA repair (which may explain another pathway for the benefits relating to cancer reduction) to having a beneficial effect on the immune system, whilst also reducing oxidative stress. So… keeping vitamin D levels within the ideal reference range is good for you!
Here goes with the 5 reminders on keeping your levels optimal.
1. It’s not all about the sun, but certainly the amazing weather we have had here in the UK recently (I, certainly, have never known an April as warm and sunny as this one) has reminded me about the importance of that feel-good solar radiation to our overall health. And getting sun exposure, ideally every day but at least 3 times a week, is hugely beneficial. We need to expose 80% of the skin’s surface for 20-30 minutes at a time to get levels into the recommended range. So that means stripping off a bit. At the very least, expose your arms and legs. By all means use some sunblock on your face to prevent premature skin ageing and melasma (unwanted patches of darker pigmentation due to uneven melanin distribution), but ideally don’t use sunblock on the rest of the body (unless, like me, you are a long distance runner or work outside and are going to be in the sun for hours on end).
2. Are you over 70? If so, even with sun exposure, your mechanisms for converting vitamin D in the skin to its active form will be diminished by up to 75% in comparison with 20 year olds. As you age, it’s a great idea to get your levels checked and take oral supplementation in addition to getting sun exposure if you need a boost.
3. Are you a meat eater? I appreciate that most of my readers will not be, and that we are often (mis)informed that one can only obtain dietary vitamin D from the animal kingdom and not via plants. However yet another downside of animal protein consumption (and yes, this includes dairy and eggs) is that it blocks the enzyme that is responsible for converting vitamin D into its “supercharged” metabolite, thus suppressing 25(OH)D3. What’s on your plate, it appears, is just as important as what isn’t.
4. How are your stress levels? Many people are having a seriously hard time with lockdown. Personally, I am loving it! I don’t have any kids to home-school, I don’t have a partner to argue with (not that I would want to argue with him, but I know some people argue with theirs and that in the USA particularly, domestic violence levels have soared), and because I am working on alternate days, I have 4 days per week to get out in the sun, exercise, do my weight-training workouts with resistance bands, read, write articles and generally sort my life out. Your situation may be hugely different from mine, and if it is, I genuinely massively sympathise with you and appreciate what you must be going through. Stress is an insidious and well-known destroyer of health, and it also has adverse effects on vitamin D levels by reducing its absorption. We also know that this is a double-whammy for reduced bone health, since not only are vitamin D levels suppressed, but stress is also directly damaging to the bone formation process as well. In these remarkable times, work on self-love. It may well be the most important (and in some cases the only) love that you receive.
5. Do you shower a lot? Now this might seem an odd kind of thing to ask my readers, and I am not here to cast doubt on anyone’s personal hygiene. But please, hear me out. We know that vitamin D is fat soluble and that it is made in the skin. Recent research indicates that if we shower a lot, we can inadvertently disrupt the lipid (fat) layer on the surface of the skin, thereby reducing the formation and absorption of vitamin D in the process. Clearly if you are out in the sun exercising a lot, as I certainly am right now, you’re going to get hot and sweaty and you’ll need that shower. My suggestion – wash the areas of your body that get hot and sweaty/smelly (armpits, feet, groin, scalp) with non-toxic shower gel or soap, whichever is your preference, but use water only on the rest. If you remember, oil (fat) and water don’t mix. If you need a reminder, pour some olive oil into a glass, top up with water and observe. The only places where you disrupt vitamin D absorption from is where you have disrupted the lipid later – i.e. where you have used a surfactant (soap, shower gel).
So that’s it – use this time wisely to improve your health and vitamin D levels through sun exposure, exercise, adequate sleep, stress relief and showing appreciation and gratitude for your partner. It may be the best opportunity we have this year.