Take your pick: pill, drops, or rays? What’s the best way to get adequate Vitamin D?
The issue can be a thorny one:
- Many people, my doctor included, say that people in the Northern U.S. and Canada simply cannot get enough Vitamin D from the sun because of the angle at which it hits the earth most of the year. The rays simply aren’t strong enough, and our skin isn’t exposed enough in the colder months.
- Common recommendations for the right amount range from 600-800 IU/day (raised from 400 IU a few years back), with an upper limit of 4,000 IUs; many natural practitioners say to get 5,000 IU/day. (sources, 1, 2)
- Must you get Vitamin A via a supplement to enhance the absorption of Vitamin D? How about calcium, , and Vitamin K? It’s quite a rabbit hole!
- You can get too much Vitamin D (say some) from food and supplements, but not from the sun. Of course, there’s that pesky sunburn issue when you rely on sun exposure for Vitamin D…
This is a good time to hop in and remind you that I’m just a mom researching health for my family and sharing what I find…not a doctor, nurse, or practitioner of any kind, and nothing in this post should be taken as medical advice. Use your own common sense and do your own research – feel free to follow my sourcing links.
What’s a good kitchen steward to do?
We don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on supplements, nor can we afford the time it will take to juggle 57 bottles of pills each day.
But we do want the best for our families, and we’re willing to make some sacrifices as long as we’re sure it’s worth it. And if we can avoid a whole-family bout with a stomach virus or five colds in one winter, that just might be worth it.
It’s not just being around other kids at school that tends to cause more illnesses in the winter.
Turns out there’s something else about wintertime that causes people to fall prey to viruses more often, and it’s all about the sun.
Why Catching Rays Increases Immune Response
When our Vitamin D levels diminish as the amount and quality of the sun’s rays decrease in the fall and winter, our immune system is far less effective at fighting germs and keeping us healthy.
We also, of course, wear more clothing and expose less skin as the weather turns cold, all of which contributes to our propensity to develop colds and more.
It’s amazing how little time in the sun we actually need for sufficient Vitamin D absorption: just 10-15 minutes of midday sun on most of the skin of a pale person can generate 10,000-25,000 IUs of Vitamin D. However, there’s a huge caveat in there that impacts both summer and winter sun exposure and Vitamin D synthesis.
When the sun’s rays enter the Earth’s atmosphere at too much of an angle, the atmosphere blocks the UVB part of the rays, so your skin can’t produce vitamin D. This happens during the early and later parts of the day and during most of the day during the winter season.
The closer to midday you expose your skin, the better this angle and the more vitamin D is produced. A good rule of thumb is if your shadow is longer than you are tall, you’re not making much vitamin D. In winter, you’ll notice that your shadow is longer than you for most of the day, while in summer, your shadow is much shorter for a good part of the middle of the day.
Isn’t it crazy how we used to just say, “Wear sunscreen all day long,” and then it was, “Try to stay out of the sun beween 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.,” and NOW we’re told, “Get 15 minutes of sun right at noon – or more if your skin is darker – and then run and hide the rest of the day?”
If we need the sun for Vitamin D but we can’t get outside between 10a and 2p, or it’s too hard to gauge when to apply sunscreen to very pale skin, or it’s October-March in the northern half of the northern hemisphere – we’re out of luck. (source, PDF)
What’s a mom to do? It’s not like we can ignore this whole issue…
The Important Role of Vitamin D in our Health
“Nearly every cell of our body has receptors for vitamin D,” which means it has an impact on dozens of systems and processes that keep our bodies ticking along each day. (source)
It’s (finally) becoming pretty well known that Vitamin D is:
- not a vitamin at all, but a a fat-soluble hormone
- vital for building the human immune system
- best obtained via sun exposure
Vitamin D is necessary for:
- Healthy bones
- Strong immune system
- Protection from cancer
- Cardiovascular health
Low levels of Vitamin D are linked to everything from fatigue to cancers to osteoporosis.
So take a pill, right?
It might not be that simple. New research is coming out that shows Vitamin D supplements may not be positively impacting some of the risk factors and may not be all that effective at raising Vitamin D levels at all.
How to Make Your Vitamin D Supplements Work Efficiently
You could try to get your D from the sun – if you live in the right place and can get just the right exposure at the right time of day with no sunscreen. Sigh.
Or you could get D from foods – there’s a nice chart here of IUs of Vitamin D in various foods. To get 600 IUs a day though – you’d have to eat a nearly ridiculous amount of salmon. And you might as well skip the milk and OJ that’s fortified, because most of those use Vitamin D2, which simply isn’t effective.
The trick is perfect for Kitchen Stewardship – it’s all about balance.
Balance with other vitamins and minerals, that is.
So you can still take a Vitamin D supplement, as long as you pay attention to a few other things:
Vitamin K works in tandem with the D to maximize the Vitamin D’s positive effects on our bones and teeth. Vitamin K isn’t found in many foods, but grassfed butter is a super star when it comes to K.
“Dark leafy greens — such as kale, spinach, or Swiss chard — are good sources of vitamin K1. They’re also high in dietary magnesium. Fermented veggies such as sauerkraut along with eggs, meats (especially organ meats such as liver) and fermented/aged cheeses are good sources of vitamin K2.” (source)
If you’re eating a very traditional diet, you might get enough Vitamin K. Otherwise, these Vitamin D+ K drops from Raise Them Well may be the best solution for the whole family. (See below for more.)
Vitamin D also requires adequate magnesium to be metabolized, but over 50% of Americans are deficient!
Some think that Vitamin D supplements can actually further cause magnesium deficiency, as your body uses more mag to metabolize all that D. Yikes. (source)
To make that clear, you MUST have adequate magnesium or your Vitamin D supplements won’t even help you. Wasted money.
Worse than that, the Vitamin D supplement will use more of your already limited magnesium stores – lose/lose.
Can you get enough magnesium from food? Many sources say that our soil has been so depleted of magnesium (and other minerals) that it’s a long shot. If you eat a lot of nuts, greens, legumes and cacao or very dark chocolate, you may be ok. Otherwise…
It’s definitely worth supplementing with magnesium if you’re going to supplement with Vitamin D.
Magnesium does come in supplement form, but it’s best taken in through the skin (source). You can add a spray, bath flakes or gel to your Perfect Supplements order here. Be sure to use the code KS10 for 10% off!
Vitamins A and D are on opposite sides of a balance scale, too – they not only improve one another’s performance in the body but also protect against toxicity from the other (source).
Having too much Vitamin D and not enough Vitamin A means that you’re at risk for Vitamin D toxicity, AND you probably won’t even get the wonderful immune system boosting benefits of Vitamin D.
In my opinion, finally, we have a nutrient that isn’t very hard to get from food. Vitamin A is a strong player in:
- sweet potatoes
- red peppers
- spinach or romaine lettuce
I feel like my family gets plenty of those, especially carrots. We ate over a pound each on average last week!!
As a fat-soluble vitamin, Vitamin A is better absorbed with fat in the same meal, which is why you’ll hear me scolding my kids, “You don’t have any dip with your carrots – get some ranch or guac!” at dinner. Pile the grassfed butter on that sweet potato – and add some sauteed greens and you’re living it up!
If you don’t feel like you get a lot of Vitamin-A rich foods, a few liver capsules a day is an easy addition, and one that will bring with it a bunch of good B Vitamins too. This is the brand we use.
Omega 3 fatty acids, found in high amounts in salmon, walnuts, flax and more, may help link Vitamin D to brain and mood (source), and they’re also vital for the absorption of Vitamin A (along with other healthy fats).
These aren’t quite as key to keep in balance, but they’re so helpful for overall health anyway that it’s remiss not to mention eating more healthy fats and considering a fish oil supplement.
To choose a good fish oil, make sure the EPA & DHA collectively add up to 1000mg (source).
How Much Vitamin D is Too Much?
According to Sara Van Anrooy, MD, the question people usually ask is, “What’s the proper dose of Vitamin D?”
That’s not even the right question.
Your goal should be to get your blood levels of Vitamin D to between 60-100 ng/mL — which could mean totally different amounts of supplementation for each person, and it also depends on your balance with Vitamins A and K and magnesium. The levels that conventional medicine looks for have been rising in recent years; many functional medicine practitioners look for higher levels.
You can take too much Vitamin D if your body isn’t able to use it right.
Kidney stones may be a sign that your body isn’t handling the Vitamin D very well and is responding by letting too much calcium build up in the blood. If you get a kidney stone or increased calcium in your urine samples, I’d think a serious look at your Vitamin D supplementation (or magnesium levels) is in order. (source)
Note: Although Dr. Van Anrooy and other sources cite 60-100 ng/mL as optimal, and most MDs say about 30-60 is optimal, Chris Kresser and Lydia Shatney recommend 35-60 and say that too much CAN hurt. With all that thrown at us, obviously it’s time to ask a professional you already trust and test your levels regularly.
What to Do to Raise Vitamin D Levels, Step by Step
I used to think that our family probably does ok with Vitamin D in the midst of summer and we could just use supplements in the Northern hemisphere winters. Last fall my husband’s D levels were STILL low the first week of September after as much outside time as we could get! Phooey. Maybe it really is true that we can’t get sufficient amounts no matter what time of year. 🙁
We’ve pretty much fallen off the wagon as far as supplements go with my kids (with the exception of probiotics). I was reminded by a reader of the importance of Vitamin D recently, especially for my kids.
Here’s my game plan for the whole family:
- Get tested for Vitamin D levels (look for 60-100 ng/mL) – note that I’m not sure I’m going to do this for all the kids
- Add a Vitamin D supplement (see below for 2 choices) – if you’re looking elsewhere, seek out only Vitamin D3, Cholecalciferol, NOT D2 (source)
- Supplement magnesium: spray or bath flakes here or on Amazon here or these mineral drops like we use in our water kefir.
- Eat lots of leafy greens.
- Eat lots of other colorful vegetables, especially orange ones, with healthy fats.
- Load up on grassfed butter, like Kerrygold from Costco
- Keep omega 3s up.
- Start putting liver into our smoothies.
- Keep up a healthy gut – probiotics are vital. We take this brand but if you want a capsule for ease of use, Perfect Supplements sells a good one.
Remember that you may not get good results with a Vitamin D supplement alone. Vitamin D should be in balance with Vitamin K2, Vitamin A, and magnesium – low Vitamin D levels, especially those that don’t respond to supplementation, MAY actually be a sign that you need to increase K2, A or mag.
I just had my Vitamin D levels tested via ZRT Labs and a home dried blood spot test (more on that next week!) – I discovered that ZRT is about half the price of a blood draw locally and would have been even less had I gotten the kit via my doctor instead of ordering it online because I realized how much I’d save at the last minute.
If your insurance won’t cover enough testing in a year or if you use a Christian healthcare sharing ministry like we do, it’s awesome to know that there are low cost options.
Make a Perfect Supplements Order
I’ve talked about a lot of possible supplements in this post, most of which you can find here:
Use the code KS10 for 10% off your order, and if you order 3 or more “Perfect” brand products, you get an additional 25% off! (Buy 6, 30% off) All of the above except the probiotics are Perfect brand. Free shipping over $99!
For Kids: Vitamin D with K Drops
To keep your whole family healthy, what do you do about kids who can’t swallow pills?
- Liver caps can be opened up and put into smoothies or meatballs
- A magnesium bath is perfect for kids
- Work hard to get lots of veggies and grassfed butter into their bellies
- But the Vitamin D capsules above are gel and might not work for kids – enter drops
Raise Them Well is fast becoming one of my new favorite companies, founded by a doctor and his wife (also an integrated nutritional therapist). They have superb non-toxic standards and understand the importance of combining D with K, for example. I love their story.
The dropper bottle makes it easy, a no-brainer, no-need-to-get-a-utensil-out experience (can be used by both kids and adults!). They have very little taste (not pleasant, but not all that unpleasant) and can go right on the tongue. (Great for hurried mornings!) They’re also incredibly easy to drip onto oatmeal or yogurt or even solid foods like toast, pancakes and more. You don’t need much:
- 1 drop for infants
- 2 for toddlers
- 3 for older kids
- 4 to 5 for adults
Check out how strongly they stand behind their product: “If This Is Not The Best Baby Vitamin D Drops That You Can Find, We Offer a 100% Money Back Guarantee. If at any point while using these drops, you can find a higher quality, easier to use supplement, we will refund your money back, no questions asked.” Wow! They’ll truly take care of you…
If you want to add a little to your order, I recommend the hand sanitizer. So many of the options out there either use triclosan, a real no-no, or alcohol (not a terrible health risk but very drying and overly fragrant), or essential oils – but not always kid-safe ones.
This sanitizer uses stabilized oxygen, which is a bit like hydrogen peroxide. My concern was that it might bleach out dark colored fabrics, but I sprayed it directly and repeatedly on an orange towel and saw zero visible change.
Further Reading on Vitamin D
- Sun, Sunscreen, Skin Cancer & Safety: How Much do You Need? :: Kitchen Stewardship
- How to Get Vitamin D from the Sun :: Nourished Kitchen (by Amy Love, NTP, CGP, CILC)
- How Do I get the Vitamin D My Body Needs? (find your skin type!) :: Vitamin D Council
- National Institutes of Health Vitamin D Fact Sheet
- Many Americans are Vitamin D Deficient :: Environmental Working Group
- Don’t Get Burned This Summer (in more ways than one) :: Kitchen Stewardship
- How to Overcome Low Vitamin D and Depression :: the Whole Journey (interview with an MD)i the