I noticed a billboard on Powell, heading downtown a few weeks back. A well-tanned bikini-clad woman lounging on a beach is asking, “Got Vitamin D?” Apparently she didn’t get her tan from the beach but from Tan Republic (insert your own John Boehner joke here).
This got me thinking- it’s often argued (in my nerdy circles anyways) whether or not we in the Pacific Northwest can produce enough vitamin D.
In the middle of February, after 75 days of drizzle and grey, no, of course not.
But how about after a full summer of sun exposure? I thought I’d see what those who research this topic can tell us, and have put summarized a few key points here.
Generally, research does not agree as to what an Adequate Intake should be (oh research, is there anything you agree on? Probably not).
Vitamin D is measured in International Units (IU) and most supplements are 400 or 1000.
Since vitamin D only comes from our own photosynthesis (and you thought only plants did that) or fish (cod, mackerel, salmon and sardines), if you’re not getting either routinely, then supplementation may be needed.
And why does it seem like vitamin D is such a hot topic? Well, when it’s low (found out by a simple blood test), then that’s been associated with a whole bunch of illnesses and conditions that you don’t want, such as muscle weakness, bone fractures, high blood pressure, heart attacks, inflammatory bowel disease, breast, prostate and colon cancer, type 1 and 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and just about any kind of infection (because of its effect on the immune system). And the list goes on and on.
So with so much research coming out against low vitamin D levels, it’s got everyone wondering, “what are my levels and what should I do?”
Although I have heard that as little as 15 minutes of face/arm/hand/leg exposure each day is enough, even in our climate, I’m not so sure. A few years back they studied young adults in Hawaii and measured their vitamin D levels. If anyone is making enough vitamin D from the sun, it is the young people of Hawaii- they live in swimsuits. Their research participants spent an average of 29 hours per week in the sun and still 51% were low in vitamin D. So I’m thinking 15 minutes a day of Oregon sun isn’t going to cut it.
So do you need to be taking vitamin D?
Odds are, we all naturally have below-normal levels (if you're not supplementing). But how much you need to get your levels up and for how long can only be known after taking into account your typical sun exposure, and the lab values of course. At this point in the year, your levels should be the highest that they ever will be. I make my recommendations based on all those factors, since they vary widely person to person.
So, get a little sun and eat a little fish and then we can talk about the particulars if you like. And really, if a blood test and a little vitamin supplementation is all that stands between you and drastically lowered risk of all those terrible diseases above, then the choice is clear. Let's check your levels.
The research I’ve mentioned comes from Nutritional Medicine by Dr. Alan R. Gaby, M.D., and research I’ve found through UpToDate (a medical database), though research abstracts can be found on PubMed. If you’re interested in a particular study, let me know and I’ll pass along what details I have on the topic.
Angela Cortal, ND is a Naturopathic Doctor who runs a family medicine practice in the Foster-Powell neighborhood. She is as passionate about her neighborhood and community involvement as well as health and wellness. During the day she helps patients with a wide variety of health issues (such as hormonal imbalance, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression and thyroid concerns ) with a focus on natural stress management and relief. During her off time she enjoys gardening, biking around the neighborhood and hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. Please see rosecityhealth.com for more on her and her practice.
Photo credits: Fran Gambín, Vassiliki Koutsothanasi, Joshua Smith