I don’t take vitamins. I make every effort to meet my nutritional needs through eating a wide variety of whole foods. I do my best to make sure those foods are organic or biodynamic and grown in a way that maximizes their nutrient content (25-50% more than conventional foods in many cases). Recently I did an analysis of my diet with a nutrition software program and I found out I am doing pretty well on my quest. There was one glaring vitamin deficiency in my diet analysis: vitamin D. It happened to be a day when I didn’t take my cod liver oil. I ate some butter, and some cream in my decaf, and I got 2.6% of my RDA for vitamin D. Say what? Remember the RDA is the minimum intake to prevent disease, in this case rickets. Recall that vitamin D is essential for the body’s absorption and utilization of calcium. Research keeps turning up demonstrating its importance to every organ system in the body, playing a role in immune enhancement, cancer protection, protection against heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and more.
A really cool thing about vitamin D is that you can make it yourself, out of the cholesterol in your skin when it is exposed to sunlight. Most researchers think that you can make enough just from exposing your hands, arms and face or your back to the sun for 10-15 minutes a day 2-7x a week, without sunscreen. I thought I was doing myself a favor a while back by putting on sunscreen every day….Digging around in the scientific literature, I was surprised to find that there is by no means a consensus on sun exposure as the primary cause of skin cancer! North of San Luis Obispo or so, however, you can’t make vitamin D in your skin in the winter months. It’s so important that your body can store it for winter use, if you have enough.
Low vitamin D status is widespread. I’ve had two vegetarian and vegan friends break bones in the past couple of years, and, when their healing went slowly, they were tested and found out they had low vitamin D. Commercial milk is fortified with vitamin D, and so are other processed foods like breakfast cereal and breakfast bars, not generally foods I recommend. I don’t drink fortified milk, I drink raw milk, which still contains natural vitamin D but not a lot. Vitamin D is not well supplied in most diets. It is found in oily fish like sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring and tuna, shellfish, liver and other organ meats, butter, eggs, cheese, raw milk and fortified foods. While I try to include sustainable sources of these foods in my diet frequently, it is hard to meet even the RDA with food alone. Vitamin D2 is found in some mushrooms and small amounts in dark leafy greens, but this form is not easily used by the body.
Many of the vitamin D-rich foods also have cholesterol which has been demonized for so long that a lot of folks habitually avoid them. As I have stated elsewhere at length, cholesterol is not bad, fat is not bad, and indeed, for most people, dietary cholesterol has little effect on blood cholesterol, which is a poor indicator of heart disease risk anyway. The vitamin D foods have been considered sacred foods in many cultures around the world. In many places, landlocked peoples have traditionally gone to great lengths to obtain foods from the sea, rich in nutrients and rich in vitamin D.
For disease prevention and general health, the only supplement I take is high vitamin cod liver oil. I mail order it from a very conscientious company. Cod fisheries, as far as I have been able to find out, are abundant and well managed. From a Chinese medicine perspective, cod liver oil is a powerful kidney and liver yin tonic. It also contains those wonderful omega 3 fatty acids. Watch out, there is a lot of lesser quality cod and fish liver oil on the market, for example, the stuff sold at your average drug store. Look for a good balance of vitamins A and D, which work synergistically, while each protects against the toxicity of the other. Most important, I give it to my 5 year old. There is good reason why this is a traditional supplement for kids. A 2004 study found that daily cod liver oil and a multivitamin significantly reduced upper respiratory-related doctor’s office visits by urban kids. Read the abstract here:
You can supplement with vitamin D in other ways, as well. D3 always comes from animal sources, but there are supplements made from lanolin, which might be OK with vegetarians. D2 can come from non-animal sources, but you’ll need to take 3 times as much. The RDA for D is just 400 IU for adults, but many scientists believe that is far too low. In 2008, a group of prominent researchers on vitamin D founded a grassroots campaign to improve vitamin D status nationwide and thereby decrease rates of cancer and other diseases associated with low vitamin D. They recommend universal intake for adults of 2000 IU/day. You can join the campaign and enroll in a 5 year study on vitamin D and test your vitamin D status at home with their test kits. Visit http://grassrootshealth.net/ for all the details. You can also ask your doctor to test your vitamin D levels. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking my cod liver oil.