Are you doing everything that you need to stay healthy? As more and more information emerges about the health benefits of Vitamin D, it is slowly working its way up to being one of the, if not the most important thing that you can do for your health. Some experts suggest that it already deserves that title. That may or may not be the case, only time and lots more research will tell.
So what is Vitamin D anyways? Technically, its not a vitamin at all. It is actually steriod like pre-hormone made from cholesterol (as are all hormones). Some of it comes from diet, typically fatty meats like cod liver. Most of it is made when UVB light hits the skin. In young healthy skin, 20 minutes with your shirt off on a Beach will get you about 20,000 IU’s of Vitamin D. It is called vitamin D because it was named that when discovered that dogs with rickets were cured by something in Cod Liver oil. A, B, and C were already taken so it was named D. The exact compound, at the time was not known however, and it wasn’t until many years later (recently, actually) that it was discovered that it was actually a pre-hormone, or prohormone as they are sometimes called. Beyond this, most of the benefits of Vitamin D are still emerging.
There is quite a bit that we do know however. Have you ever wondered why the fall and winter are “cold and flu season”? Vitamin D is strongly associated with your immune system function, as it is a very important prohormone that helps to regulate it. Research suggests that a single high dose of vitamin D (around 20,000 IU’s, or one summer day in the sun) at the first sign of sickness greatly reduces your risk of getting a full blown cold or flu. Though, it is very important that such a high dose not be taken daily, as vitamin D toxicity can occur after a period of repetitive high doses. This is not an issue when acquired from sunlight as your body has a mechanism to prevent over production. However, as our skin ages and we get less and less time outdoors, our bodies make less vitamin D from sunlight. A much safer way is to take a regular moderate dose to ensure that your levels no get low enough to inhibit your immune function. For this, regular monitoring to get your levels appropriately adjusted is important.
In addition to vitamin D’s effects on your immediate health, it also has many benefits to your long term health. Low vitamin D is associated with an increase in risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, asthma, hypertension, several central nervous system disorders and all cause mortality. Though we do not know why it affects all of these things yet, we do know that every cell in your body has a receptor for vitamin D. Only a handful of substances can make that claim. That is generally an indication that it is very important for regulating cell function. We do know that it benefits blood sugar control and insulin management, as well as thyroid function. We also know that it is anabolic (tissue growth) and has benefits to the nervous system and mental health, and that it is highly anti-inflammatory. Its anti-inflammatory properties are not completely understood, but it may have something to do with how it promotes healthy tissue growth and repair. We know that it has neurotransmitter properties that improve inter- and intramuscular coordination and reaction time. The overall improved neural responses stretch to the cognitive arena as well, as it improves mental clarity, memory, focus and mental reaction time. It even improves lung function and asthma. We also know that it controls the expression of more than 200 genes and the proteins they produce. This has a significant effect on new cell formation and programmed cell death. Beyond that, our knowledge of its mechanisms of action is limited. Its health benefits are certainly not in question though. It is vital for a health!
Have you wondered why it is easier to get in shape during the summer? As it turns out, Vitamin D’s benefits to your fitness are also strong. Through Vitamin D’s benefits to insulin management, muscle growth, thyroid function and the nervous system, it has pronounced benefits to your fitness. This means that it is easier to put on muscle and lean down when your vitamin D is in normal ranges. It helps you sleep better which also improves workout recovery. It improves mood and energy which will help energize your workouts and motivation. It even increases strength and power directly without any of this.
So the question is not whether you need to be taking it, but are you taking enough? There is quite a bit of argument concerning optimal blood levels. 20 years ago, as long as you were above 20 ng/ml, you were fine. Today, data shows that your risk of depression sky rockets if your levels drop below 30. Conservative estimates of optimal ranges are 40-80 ng/ml. Nearly every patient that we see is below this range when they come in for the first time. There is sufficient data for less conservative scientists to recommend that optimal ranges are between 60-100 ng/ml. It is likely that as more and more data comes out to support this higher range, optimal ranges will be adjusted upward over the next 5-10 years. Toxicity does not occur until levels over 110 ng/ml which requires well over 10,000 IU’s per day for the average person. It is important to test your vitamin D levels regularly to make sure that your levels are in the ideal range, as they fluctuate greatly throughout the year.