In Alaska, we have a distinct predisposition for becoming Vitamin D deficient. Because vitamin D is best made in the skin through sun exposure, most Americans end up deficient at least seasonally, and many chronically due to indoor lifestyles. Even the most outdoorsy and active Alaskans are typically deficient due to the reduced intensity of the sun at these high latitudes, and, of course, the overall lack of sun during the winter season.
What exactly is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D acts more like a hormone than a true vitamin. It is formed in the skin when sunlight reacts with a form of cholesterol to form cholecalciferol. This compound is then converted to the most active form of Vitamin D in a two-step process in the liver and kidneys. Vitamin D’s most important job is regulating calcium cycles in the body by maintaining optimal blood and bone levels of calcium. Vitamin D is so essential for bone health that low Vitamin D levels are a much more telling predictor of bone problems than calcium levels. A person can have exceptional bone health with adequate Vitamin D levels but low calcium levels. The reverse is not true. All the calcium intake in the world is useless without Vitamin D.
How do I know if I’m deficient?
If you live in Alaska and you’re not supplementing, you’re deficient in Vitamin D. If you live in Alaska and you ARE supplementing, you might still be deficient. You can get a simple blood test to check your levels. A result between 40 and 80 ng/mL is considered normal. Due to the ease in falling into a deficient status, Alaskans should really shoot for the higher end of that range.
How do I get more?
The best way to ensure good Vitamin D levels is to take regular trips to Hawaii. For most people, however, this may not be a practical solution (certainly not practical for me!). Short, regular intervals in a tanning bed have been proposed as a solution, but there is a major problem with this approach. The sun emits both UVA and UVB rays, but Vitamin D production is stimulated by UVB rays only. Tanning beds typically emit only UVA, rendering them useless as far as Vitamin D is concerned. Special UVB bulbs are available, but uncommon.
This leaves oral supplementation. The best precursor to active Vitamin D is D3, or cholecalciferol (from that first stage of production mentioned above). There are some foods that contain D3, and luckily for us, the best whole food source is salmon. A 3.5 oz. serving of salmon provides 360 IU of Vitamin D3. Egg yolks and grass fed beef liver are other whole food sources, but these are still unlikely to fully meet the needs of Alaskans. Cod liver oil is another good source, and it also contains Vitamin A, which is an important cofactor. Cod liver oil is best utilized when fat digestion is optimized. If you have ever had gallbladder problems, this is a sign that you are not digesting fats well, and could use support in this area. Milk is often fortified with D, but it can be with D2 from irradiated fungi. This plant-source of Vitamin D is less efficiently used by the body than D3.
Because foods are unlikely to provide enough cholecalciferol to meet the needs of Alaskans, supplementation is usually necessary. Look specifically for D3 from cholecalciferol.
Can I take too much?
Vitamin D toxicity is very possible. It’s been speculated that the dizziness and nausea from “sun-poisoning” may really be due to Vitamin D toxicity. Vitamin D cannot be supplemented with reckless abandon. Up to 1000 IU per day can usually be taken safely by children, and 2000 IU per day for adults can be helpful in our northern climes. If you are concerned, ask your doctor to check your levels.
What else does Vitamin D do?
Our bodies are not a neat and systematic list of inputs and outputs. Each process is inextricably tied to many others. Because of this, the consequences of a single nutrient deficiency can be wide reaching. Deficiencies in Vitamin D have been linked to immune problems like colds, flus, autoimmune disease, and cancer. Seemingly unrelated conditions like muscle spasms, menopausal problems, diabetes, cataracts, asthma, and Alzheimer’s have all been linked to deficiencies in Vitamin D. With this in mind, you should consider your Vitamin D deficiency to be an emergency! Have your levels checked, and get those levels up.
This article is for information purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice.
Haas, E. M. Staying Healthy With Nutrition. 2006. Celestial Arts, Berkeley. Staying Healthy With Nutrition. 2006. Celestial Arts, Berkeley.
Graham, Grey. Vitamin D Sunshine & Supplements. Nutritional Therapy Association.
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