Gaia Health

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How to Get Vitamin D Without the Sun

Certainly, it’s best to get your Vitamin D from the sun. It’s the most natural approach. However, there are other ways if needed. Here’s a guide to those sources, and how to convert IUs to milligrams. 

Sunflower-in-sunshine

by Heidi Stevenson

While it’s best to obtain your Vitamin D3 by sun exposure, nowadays it simply isn’t practical for most of us to spend that much time outside. There’s no need to worry, though. Two good options for getting the D3 you need are readily available. One is through suntanning booths and beds, and the other is via supplements.

First, though, let’s take a look at what foods provide D3. Although there’s a diet that can supply adequate D3, it isn’t one that’s readily available to most people, and frankly, unless you’ve grown up with it, the chances are you’ll find it less than appetizing. It’s virtually all meat and animal fat, and much is eaten raw. D3 and other vitamins are readily available in the flesh, organs, and blubber of far north animals, unlike those of lower latitudes. While this diet isn’t readily available to most people, or desirable, it does demonstrate that D3 can be obtained through diet.

It’s helpful to know where you can obtain D3 in your food. As might be expected from the Inuit diet, the best foods for D3 are cold water fish, with cod liver oil at the top of the list. Unfortunately, cod liver oil is very toxic from pollution and should be avoided—not a heartening start!

The current official recommended allowance of D3 is 400 IU. However, this figure is far too low to produce adequate levels in the body. An adequate figure has not yet been established, but 2,000 IU is likely a more reasonable figure. Assuming that, one tablespoon of cod liver oil would produce about 68% of what’s necessary for a typical person.

Update: While optimal intake of vitamin D is still not specified, the best sources of information are stating that 5,000 IUs is a good place for an adult to start. However, unless you know your blood level, you cannot know just how much to supplement.

The best food sources for D3 are:

Food Quantity Content (IUs) Percent of 2,000 IUs
Cod Liver Oil 1 Tbl. 1,360 68.0
Atlantic Herring (pickled 100 gms. 680 34.0
Oysters (steamed) 100 gms. 500 25.0
Mackerel (canned & drained) 100 gms. 450 22.4
Salmon (baked) 100 gms. 360 18.0
Mackerel (fresh & cooked) 100 gms. 345 17.2
Lard (pork fat) 10 gms. 280 13.8/td>
Sardines (canned in oil, drained) 100 gms. 170 13.4
Eel (cooked) 100 gms. 200 10.0
Milk (whole/nonfat, D3 fortified) 1 cup 98 5.0
Beef liver (cooked) 100 gms. 30 1.6
Whole egg 1 Egg 26 1.2
Butter 10 gms. 5.6 0.3

Obviously with most modern diets, eating is not a realistic way to get Vitamin D3! That leaves either supplementation or using a tanning booth to obtain an adequate amount, if you can’t spend enough time in the sun.

Suntanning Booths

Suntanning booths have the extra advantage of giving you an attractive tan. The question is, are they healthy?  The two potential problems are burning and skin aging.

While it’s true that sun exposure has been associated with melanoma, a particularly virulent type of skin cancer, there is evidence that it may not be true:

  • Most cases of melanoma do not occur on skin that’s often exposed to sunlight. About 75% of cases are found in unexposed locations, such as the bottom of the foot.
  • Melanoma decreases with more sun exposure.
  • Research from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has shown that the use of sunscreens does not decrease the incidence of melanoma.

A history of sunburn does appear to be associated with melanoma, but there is little to suggest that moderate amounts of tanning are a factor, and much to indicate that it may be beneficial. Gaia Health discusses this in more depth in Suntans Have Nothing to Do with Cancer, But Most Sunscreens Do.

Judicious use of ultraviolet lamps can resolve concerns with the potential of burning. Start slowly, and be particularly careful if your skin is light. Remember that burns often don’t show until hours later.

If your skin is particularly sensitive, it might be a good idea to take a high-dose supplement of Vitamin D for a month before starting your sessions, as it can prevent burning. Of course, be sure to first have a blood test to determine that your systemic D3 level is low. Once assured that it’s low, then you can take 10,000 IUs a day for a month. Not only does UVB light create Vitamin D, the reverse is true: Vitamin D helps protect the skin from burning.

It has long been held that sunlight ages the skin. There’s may be truth in this and much study seems to have documented it. However, whether it’s true only of irresponsible sunning, that is, getting burned instead of allowing a tan to develop slowly, or from taking a responsible approach does not seem to have been studied. Therefore, if skin aging is a matter of concern, it is probably best to tan only moderately and take a Vitamin D supplement to assure adequate dosing, but verify blood levels of D3 through tests.

Length of Time for D3 to Get to Bloodstream

An odd thing has been noted about D3 levels in lifeguards, who spend most of their time out of water, and surfers, who spend most of their time in it. While both groups have adequate blood serum levels, the surfers have significantly less D3.

D3 is created by the interaction of ultraviolet B radiation and cholesterol on or near the skin’s surface. It then migrates through the skin’s layers into the bloodstread—taking as long as 48 hours. The surfers don’t get as much of the benefit of D3 because nowhere near as much reaches the bloodstream.

Whether you get Vitamin D3 from the sun or a tanning booth, it can easily be washed off before reaching the bloodstream. Naturally, you don’t want to walk around dirty. There is, though, a simple solution.

For most of us, odor is a problem primarily in two areas—underarms and the groin. So, either take shallow baths or brief showers, and use soap only on those areas. This will eliminate most of the bacteria that creates a bad odor.

Should I Use Sunblock or Lotion?

In a word, no. There is little benefit in most of these products. Most are actually harmful, even associated with cancer.

First, keep in mind that the purpose of sunblocks and lotions is to keep you from the benefits of sunlight. Why would you want to do that? If they work, which is often not the case, you’d lose one of the most healthful things you can do for yourself.

UVA rays cause sunburn, not UVB. UVA rays are very penetrating. Though UVB rays are largely blocked by clouds, UVA slices right through—and deep into your skin, right through most sun lotions.

The majority of sunscreens include oxybenzone, an estrogen imitator that is easily absorbed by the skin. This can act as an endocrine disruptor in the human body. The massive quantities that are sweated away, washed away, and swum away end up in the environment, feminizing wildlife, most notably fish. Two other chemicals found in sunscreens (and lip balms), octocrylene and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, have similar effects on wildlife. Studies are showing that these chemicals are having bad effects on human health, including lowering testosterone and increasing breast cancer. We are receiving these negative effects through use and also through drinking water and eating fish.

Another chemical, oxtyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), which is found in 90% of sunscreens, was found to kill mouse cells at low doses. The study, done by Terje Christensen, biophysicist of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, found that even lower concentrations than used in sunscreens killed mouse cells. Even worse, she found that shining a sunlight-simulating lamp on the cells exposed to OMC caused even more cells to die. The implication is that the intended use of sunscreens may cause the harm they’re supposed to prevent.

If you feel that you must use a sunscreen, then be sure to use only ones that are relatively safe. The Environmental Working Group tests well over a hundred products for you, and provides the results here.

Windows

One last point should be made before leaving the subject of how to obtain Vitamin D3 through sunning and ultraviolet lamps. Glass windows stop nearly all of the UVB radiation, the rays that produce D3. However, most of the UVA radiation goes right through glass, so it’s possible to get burned by sunlight through a window without obtaining any of the sun’s benefits.

Supplements

The fact that our bodies are designed to obtain D3 from sunlight is indicative of its being the best option, with sunlamps the second choice because they closely mimic the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. However, in today’s world, that’s not practical for many, possibly most, of us. That leaves supplementation as the remaining option.

The good news is that supplementation has been shown to effectively increase serum blood levels of D3. The downside is that it’s possible to overdose on D3 this way. (When sunning or using lamps, it’s impossible to overdo D3, because excess is destroyed on the skin by the sun’s rays.) In truth, this is extremely unlikely. You’d have a hard time finding a doctor who has ever seen a case of Vitamin D toxicity. Nonetheless, you should be aware of the potential and have your blood levels tested to assure they don’t go over 100 ng/ml.

The question is, of course, how much should you take? This is where having your blood tested, as described in Sunlight—Required Nutrient, Not a Health Risk, comes in. Be aware that, as a fat-soluble hormone, D3 is stored by the body, not excreted when in excess, as with Vitamin C. Therefore, you can approach the problem of inadequate serum levels by taking high doses, and then leveling off until you find a good maintenance dose.

To that end, assuming that you’ve found your D3 blood level is low, you might want to start taking 10,000 IUs a day for a month and have your blood tested again. Based on that, you can decide to continue at that rate or try to find a maintenance level, which will likely be in the range of 2,000 IUs per day.

The term “ergo-” comes from ergot, a fungus that invades grains. LSD was originally derived from an ergot that grows on rye.

Identifying good quality Vitamin D is important. There are two primary types: D2, ergocalciferol, and D3, cholecalciferol. Vitamin D3 is what’s synthesized by the sun, not D2. D2, ergocalciferol, is made by radiating fungus and is not naturally found in the human body. Unfortunately, it is used in some supplements, especially multivitamins. Therefore, it’s important to read the label. If it simply says Vitamin D or calciferol, then you cannot know if it’s what your body needs. Be sure that the product you take is D3, cholecalciferol.

Vitamin D is usually sold in terms of international units, or IUs. Occasionally, you may see it expressed in terms of milligrams or micrograms. The conversion rate for Vitamin D is:

1000 IU = 25 micrograms = .025 milligrams

Conclusions

In deciding to write about Vitamin D, I hadn’t realized just how complex the subject is or how little is known about what’s needed. Many hours of research and study were required to weed out flawed information and to determine just what we really do know.

The bottom line is that Vitamin D3 is probably the single most underrated nutrient and the least understood. It affects every aspect of health because it’s a prehormone that’s used to create hormones, including steroids, that are critical to functioning. If, for example, you are tired all the time, but your thyroid tests as normal, there might be a lack of D3. The immune system requires it, and its lack appears to be implicated in the epidemic of cancer. It maintains calcium balance, aid in cell differentiation, helps activate the immune system, is involved in insulin secretion, and is involved in a host of other cell-level activities.

Factors in how to resolve the lack of Vitamin D3 are addressed. Honesty has been the guiding principle. If something isn’t known, then work-arounds have been suggested. That is why optimal dosing of D3 is not specified, but the means to determine whether you have adequate or even toxic levels have been described.

With the concerns about influenza vaccinations, let me leave you with one last noteworthy point: Adequate D3 levels prevent influenza. So, rather than having a toxic injection, perhaps you should simply get out in the sun, go to a tanning salon, or take a D3 supplement.

Sources:

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