The Power Within: A journey of light from the sun to our cells, and Vitamin D.
It doesn’t seem like that long ago I wrote you the Summer Survival tips (which by the way you can still use!) to help you stay safe, healthy, and happy in the sun. But we are now entering the last summer stretch (where did the time go?) getting ready for warmer clothes, sending our kids back to school (for you parents out there). Now is the perfect time to really try to enjoy the last bits of sunshine and summer fun. As we near the end of this amazing, abundant, and sun-filled season we see cooler weather approaching, more rainy days, greyer skies, and the decrease of fresh local veggies and fruits. We are gradually approaching a state of rest and as we get closer, we are less exposed to the sun and fresh in-season whole foods. So how can we make sure we are getting enough of the sunshine vitamin in the coming seasons? In this month’s health article I talk about how your body uses and produces Vitamin D, and why it is important for you to know the process.
The more you know about your body and your health, the more you empower yourself to make better and healthier decisions.
The process of Vitamin D in your body seems simple, you go out in the sun and poof you get vitamin D, but actually it’s much more complex than that. And what about those who suffer from Vitamin D deficiency? Even though factors such as latitude (distance from the sun), season, time of day, cloud cover, smog, clothing, and sunscreen use can prevent adequate exposure to the sun, we must not forget that there are internal factors as well that may be the real reason we aren’t getting enough Vitamin D. A major factor is the accumulation of toxicity in our body which can interrupt our Vitamin D production such as pharmaceutical drugs and stress, but I’ll go into this a bit more later. The human body is capable of producing as much as 10,000 IU to 20,000 IU of vitamin D3 in just 30 minutes, but why is it that so many people are suffering from deficiency? According to Gerry Schwalfenberg, an assistant clinical professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Alberta, 60 to 70 percent of Canadians have inadequate levels of Vitamin D which is linked to many chronic diseases. That is crazy! Statistics Canada says that 32% of adults in Canada have insufficient levels, and 10% are deficient. In United States, half of all children, teens and young adults are vitamin D deficient, as well as 25 to 57 percent of adults. But how can this happen?
The production of Vitamin D actually involves a few different body systems that work together to convert the sunshine you get on your skin into a form of Vitamin D (or hormone) that your body can use. The production of Vitamin D is done by your amazing liver and kidneys (surprise surprise!). Most articles out there don't even talk on this very important aspect, and in my opinion they ought to.
So, lets talk about exposing your skin to the sun and what exactly happens.
This is temporarily going to get boring but just stay with it, I promise it will make sense, and you will benefit.
We produce vitamin D3 in our body by the reactions of a chemical in our skin in response to sunlight. When you expose your skin to ultraviolet rays (direct sunlight), a chemical reaction happens; your body begins the process of converting a prohormone (a chemical that amplifies the effects of existing hormones) in the skin into vitamin D. This happens on the outermost layer of your skin called the epidermis. But wait a minute, it’s not that easy. The body then continues this complex process to produce a form of Vitamin D that you can actually use. Lets go in a little deeper.
A form of cholesterol called 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC) naturally found in your skin absorbs the UVB radiation and gets converted into a previtamin (cholecalciferol) in the epidermis. This previtamin form of vitamin D3, is sent into the extracellular fluid space in your body and binds to a protein that is now able to ship it everywhere. Once this process is done in the skin, this binding protein ships this previtamin form of Vitamin D3 to your liver for the next step. That’s right, there it is again, your marvellous liver.
You know how I always talk about the liver? Well, it’s because the liver does between 500-600 jobs every minute, that probably means the next 500 health articles I write will be about the liver, so brace yourself. One of the many jobs the liver does in your body, is metabolize, convert, and synthesize Vitamin D into a form you can use. What’s important to remember is that if your liver is overwhelmed, overburdened, and not working efficiently due to an accumulation of toxins that your body can’t break down, it will disturb one of these 500 jobs including the process of making Vitamin D. Another important reason why you should support your liver (and other eliminatory organs like your kidneys) to help drain out stagnant material, or toxicity.
At this point your liver metabolizes and converts this pre-vitamin into hydroxyvitamin D - AKA 25-hydroxyvitamin D or 25(OH)D. Now, once this process is done, there is another step, it is sent to your kidneys for the final conversion. The kidneys are one of the key organs along with the liver that helps drain toxicity out of your body. Here, the kidneys convert the 25(OH)D into 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D (calcitriol, or 1,25 - (OH)2D). To put it simply, your kidney converts it to the active hormonal form of vitamin D3 that your body can actually use. What’s really interesting is that this final form of Vitamin D3 acts as a vital key to unlock binding sites to the human genome for the expression of the genetic code. The human genome contains more than 2,700 binding sites for calcitriol, those binding sites are genes involved in almost every known major disease. For example, vitamin D is absorbed in the small intestine, and a person with leaky and inflamed GI tract (which is common in people with low thyroid function) reduces the absorption of vitamin D.
So, do you now see the complexity and depth of the human body, and just how important it is to be healthy so that we can get enough Vitamins? Our complex body systems go through hundreds of complex processes just to produce, use, and excrete just one tiny vitamin. What would happen if any part of this massive complex system was out of balance, or sluggish, or overburdened with other jobs?
What are some other things Vitamin D does for us?
Enhances our absorption of calcium from the intestines
Stabilizes levels of calcium and phosphorus in our blood
Maintains healthy bones and bone growth (low levels of Vitamin D leads to osteoporosis)
May lower the risk of some cancers such as breast and colorectal
May lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and multiple sclerosis
Help support the immune system, protects against invaders
Regulates insulin secretion and sensitivity and balances blood sugar
How to get more Vitamin D
We should get more than 90 percent of our vitamin D from casual, daily sun exposure. That’s approximately 30 minutes of sun on your unprotected face, arms, legs or back ideally between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. two to three times/week. Even if it’s cloudy, you can still expose yourself to the UVB rays but it must be for a longer time. I know what you’re thinking, what do I do in the winter when it’s too cold to expose my skin? During the winter months, it is ideal to spend more time outside, but understandably it can be difficult, so we have to rely on nutrition.
Vitamin D in Real Whole Foods
If you can’t get enough sun exposure, the next best thing is to eat foods high in Vitamin D.
In order, here are the top foods containing the highest levels of Vitamin D:
Fish eggs (roe or caviar)
Whole milk yoghurt or kefir
Grass-fed Beef or Calf liver
As a last resort, and for those who live above 47 degrees north of the equator, taking no more than 1000IU/day and only for the winter months is preferred. There are primary forms of supplemental Vitamin D: D3 (cholecalciferol) and D2 (ergocalciferol). Supplemental vitamin D3 is derived from either lanolin or cod liver oil extract, this form of Vitamin D most effectively treats Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D2 is not naturally present in the human body and may have actions within the body different from those of Vitamin D3, so the correct form to take is D3. You can find a high quality brand at your nearest health food store, my favourite over-the-counter brand is AOR. But be careful, taking too many supplements and IU’s/day especially for long periods of time can send confusing signals to your kidneys and can cause further imbalances and deficiencies.
As your personal, virtual Holistic Nutritionist, my recommendation to you for next season is to get out twice/week and enjoy the outdoors. If however you live in the rainy city or a place where it’s too cold to go out and expose a little arm and leg, incorporate the right whole foods along with plenty of greens ON A DAILY basis (for example watercress, kale, collards, dandelion greens, cilantro, parsley, etc…) and you are well on your way to staying healthy and balanced over the coming sunless seasons.
Remember, knowledge is power, but only if you apply it. So why aren’t you applying it? You have control over your health and the processes of your body at all times, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Your body is not broken, it is trying to heal you every single second of every single day. Please allow it to do what it has been designed to do.
So, with these knowledge tools, apply it to your life and you will see some amazing shifts take place. Enjoy the sun, the outdoors, and fresh whole foods, dear friends.