Think You Know Vitamin D?

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Until last week, I thought I understood Vitamin D. Then I attended a presentation by Green Pasture and was introduced to the Vitamin D Handbook: Structures, Synonyms, and Properties. This is an academic book that sells new for $145. It is highly technical. In it you will learn that there isn’t just one form of Vitamin D3, there are over 3,000 derivatives. Of the 3,000 derivatives, only 1,000 have published biochemical data on them.

If you go to Amazon and click the Look Inside link, you can see the level of detail on the different molecular formations of Vitamin D. See the screen capture below.

From The Vitamin D Handbook by G. W. A. Milne, M. Delander

When you buy a Vitamin D3 supplement, how many the 3,000 derivatives are you getting? Just one. Every time we think we understand Mother Nature and go into a lab to replicate what we learned, we end up discovering what we don’t know exceeds what we do know. Michael Pollan calls this Nutritionism. What is the potential downside to taking mega doses of a single form of a Vitamin D3 molecule? We don’t know.

Loading up on supplements to solve our health issues is not only lazy, it is also arrogant. It assumes we know more than we do. Just this week a study came out about the increased risk of heart attacks and strokes associated with calcium supplementation. If supplements aren’t the answer, what is? Whole foods. Whole food sources that contain Vitamin D do not just contain a single derivative, but a wide spectrum of derivatives. We get Vitamin D mostly from the sun and seafood.

Readers of this blog know that I have a strong interest in a seasonal approach to nutrition. Because I live north of the 37th parallel, I do not get enough sunshine during the winter months for Vitamin D production. Therefore I will use the winter months to favor seafood. Salmon, mackerel and sardines all contain Vitamin D.

Cod liver oil is a controversial topic. Is it a food or a supplement? Does it contain a single Vitamin D derivative or a spectrum? What I know about this topic comes from Green Pasture. They make a fermented cod liver oil that doesn’t use the same processing techniques found with the other brands on the market. Based off what I saw at the presentation, I suspect their product is superior to others as it contains more than a single derivative of Vitamin D3, but I have no way of knowing for sure.

My Vitamin D strategy going forward is to favor sunshine for most of the year. During the winter months, I’ll increase my consumption of seafood and supplement with fermented cod liver oil when I go too long without seafood. Next winter I’ll finish the remaining capsules in my Vitamin D jar, but won’t be buying any more.

UPDATE JUNE 2011: One of my blog readers made this video on Sunshine and Vitamin D.

17 thoughts on “Think You Know Vitamin D?

  1. Marian

    You’ve really outgeeked yourself this time…I saw those molecular diagrams at the top and almost stopped reading 🙂

    I’m with you on nutritionism…to a point. I think the Vitamin D really helps my SAD. And if there were a “magic bullet” for PMS – which I have struggled with for *decades* – I would probably take it. If the magic bullet happened to increase my risk for heart attack and/or strokes? Everybody should do their own cost-benefit analysis but personally, I would probably keep taking it.

  2. @Marian – I do think a single Vitamin D3 derivative is better than none. Sun first, whole foods second and supplements last.

  3. What a great post! There are also pieces we don’t know about what vitamin D needs to be consumed with, in that we know it co-presents with other fat-soluble vitamins and in fats, and probably needs to be consumed that way, but there is probably a lot more about how it naturally appears in food that we don’t understand.

  4. chuck

    Thanx for sharing what you’ve learned. I have wondered if the body’s positive reactions to cold exposure are a way to counteract our lack of sun exposure and low Vit D production in winter months.

  5. @Chuck – I hadn’t thought of that angle. I think it might be just as simple as eating “little stores of Vitamin D” (seafood) during the winter months.

  6. Mike

    The problem with humans is that they insist on living in places they have no business living in, e.g. where they don’t get enough sunshine. They should have stayed in Kenya where they were evolved. You don’t see any giraffes in Norway do you?
    Animals don’t take supplements and they do just fine.

  7. Mike

    And furthermore….what’s going to happen when we colonize Mars? No sunshine and no fish! Supplement City here we come.

  8. chuck

    @MAS Another thing I wonder is if it is possible we could store Vit D along with energy. Those are plentiful in the sunny months. I wonder if that has been studied?

    Also, did they discuss low cholesterol and low Vit D at the talk?

  9. @Chuck – Low cholesterol was not discussed. It was mostly about how Vitamin D is measured and how it isn’t a single point, but a spectrum.

    As for stores, I found this quote on DermNet NZ:
    “…the body can rely on tissue stores of vitamin D for between 30 and 60 days assuming levels are adequate prior to winter.”

    Since Seattle is so far north, my Vitamin D downtime will exceed 60 days. This means I should travel south in the winter. 🙂

  10. GWhitney

    Hi MAS.
    Do you have any experience with SAD lights? I used one 3-4 days per week this winter and it seemed to make everything about 33% better – better sleep, more energy, sustained improvement in overall fitness. Nothing dramatic but no dips and mini slumps of previous winters.

    I’m not geeky enough to understand the melatonin – Vitamin D links – but I suspect there are some.

    BTW – I did no Vitamin D supplementation at all this winter, but *did* takes lots of fish oil and fish liver supplements.

  11. @GWhitney – No I haven’t. I’ve improved my sleep by going at it from the opposite direction, which is using black out blinds. I’m a natural morning person and tend to spring out of bed in the AM. I wonder if I would benefit from a SAD light?

    TS Wiley, who wrote the book on sleep, blue light and carbs said in a recent podcast that due to so much artificial light in the modern world that melatonin production is damaged in all of us and that supplementation is essential. I don’t disagree with her, but since my sleep is great and I don’t know the effects of daily hormone supplementation, I’m not going to pursue that for myself.

  12. @Debs – Thanks for commenting. Sorry it took so long to show up. For some reason WordPress flagged your comment as SPAM. I’m glad I caught it. Your comments should show up immediately now.

  13. Andy

    Very interesting. But since my vitamin d supplement has been derived from a natural source, Lanolin (sheep wool). Wouldn’t this mean that it contains a similar spectrum forms of different forms of vitamin d? I’m not really arguing supplementing is better, just curious.

  14. @Andy – Perhaps. It all depends on if during the manufacturing and processing the natural form of Vitamin D is destroyed as has to be added back. Green Pasture claimed this is what happens with standard Cod Liver Oil.

  15. Tom J.

    Michael, I was just referred to this post by someone claiming there were 3000 forms of vitamin D3. After looking at the book, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. The book is a catalogue of derivatives (key word!) of vitamin D3. In other words, molecules you can make starting with D3 as the building block. Most of these 3000 are molecules you do not want in your body. For example, there are a lot with fluorine atoms attached. You really don’t want any F in your body; I’m not aware of any endogenous use for it. Fluorine-containing compounds tend to be quite toxic, in fact. I suspect this book is aimed at pharmaceutical researchers who are trying to develop vitamin D based drugs. You can’t patent vitamin D3 or any other molecule found in nature, but someone has probably patented 4,4-difluoro-1α,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 with the intention of making money from it. To make the leap that these are all naturally occurring “forms” of vitamin D is wrong. I’ve read a lot of research on vitamin D and have never come across any mention of multiple forms of the vitamin with similar activity.

    I certainly agree with you on the importance of getting as much nutrition as possible from whole foods. I think supplements should be kept to a minimum. Vitamin D is one supplement that makes sense, unless you’re dedicated enough to eat large amounts of fish, fish livers, CLO, solar-irradiated mushrooms, etc. However, another option is sunlight, even in winter. Newer research is indicating that even at high latitudes, there is enough sunlight for skin to make vitamin D in the middle of winter. Ask any ice fisherman here in Wisconsin if they’ve ever gotten sunburned in January and they will say yes. Reflected UV (albedo) from snow/ice is nearly 90%, so on a bright sunny day it stands to reason you can get a hefty dose of UV. Of course, in a place like Seattle where it is overcast without snow most of the winter, this may not hold.

    For more, read: http://www.westonaprice.org/our-blogs/cmasterjohn/vitamin-d-problems-with-the-latitude-hypothesis/

  16. @Tom J. – Thanks for commenting.

    I’ll admit that I do not have the science background to understand much of what I saw from the spectrum tests done on the fermented cod liver oil. It appeared that multiple forms of Vitamin D3 were in the food, whereas the supplement only tested positive at one point in the spectrum. Again, I don’t know what this means.

    My guess is that Vitamin D3 research (like most nutrition) is still in its infancy. As a hedging strategy, I’ll favor whole foods – including fish and fish livers int he winter and sunshine in the summer.

  17. Doris Beers

    You are fortunate that fish and sun are healthy for you. For those of us with allergies, supplements can be useful.

    I am allergic to fish, wool/lanolin, beef, and egg (the other two natural sources of D3). D2 just doesn’t do too much and I burn very easily.

    Still trying to research how much of the lanolin is processed out of vegetarian D3.

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