Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The new wonder drug....that's been around forever!

If I told you I had found a substance that could offer the following beneficial effects....

  • Could super charge your immune system
  • Reduce your incidence of colds and flu by 70%
  • Reduce your risk of dying from a heart attack by 31%
  • Could half your risk of certain cancers including breast, skin, prostate and bowl cancer
  • Could lower insulin resistance and reduce your type I and II Diabetes risk by 80%
  • Reduce Multiple Sclerosis risk
  • Keep your brain working efficiently into later life
  • Could help you maintain a healthy body weight
  • Could reduce severity and frequency of Asthma symptoms
  • Could lower blood pressure
  • Can alleviate the symptoms of fibromyalgia (Chronic, widespread pain and fatigue)
  • Could help fight depression

I'd probably have your attention, but you may be a little sceptical. You might even expect me to offer details of some dubious new herbal supplement derived from rare Nepalese caterpillar dung, or badgers breast milk?

You'd then expect such a “wonder drug” to be branded with some catchy name, endorsed by a suitably tanned Ironman Triathlete, and sold for the bargain price of £59.99 for a months supply!

I guess then, you'd be surprised to learn that this substance, and some of it's affects on the body, were first identified around 100 years ago and, since then, all the claims mentioned above have been clinically proven.

Finally, you might also be interested to learn that this substance is naturally occurring, is found in our diets, is available as a very cheap supplement or, better still, available for free simply by laying in the sun!

So what is this incredible substance?

Well, that is what I would like to blog about today...

I'm talking about the “Sunshine Vitamin” - Vitamin D.

Nature's own unsung wonder drug!

Lets start by correcting a misnomer. Vitamin D isn't actually a vitamin at all. It is, in fact, a fat soluble “Secosteroid” or “Pro hormone” (a precursor to a Hormone). It was given the nickname “Vitamin D” when it was used to treat Rickets in kids (in the shape of cod liver oil). But hey, Nicknames tend to stick, so I'll continue to refer to it as “Vitamin-D” if that's ok.

So “what's in a name” you might ask?

Well this is a very important distinction because, like other hormones in the body, deficiency in “Vitamin” D can have dramatic effects on the body.

As a comparative example, if your thyroid hormone levels were low, you might gain 20kg in weight, your blood pressure would sky-rocket, you could go bald, become constipated, develop blood clots and be terribly fatigued. In other words, things would be far from peachy! Similarly, if thyroid hormone levels are corrected by giving you a thyroid hormone, you'd experience profound correction of these phenomena.

It's the same with “Vitamin” D. If you are deficient, then restoring this Pro hormone to normal blood levels can bring profound changes in the body.

Our bodies have around 30,000 genes and Vitamin D has been shown to influence approximately 3,000 of them. Incredibly, almost every type of cell and tissue in our bodies have receptors that respond to Vitamin D, from our brains to our bones. Researchers are continually finding additional health benefits from vitamin D – yet it continues as a largely unrecognised compound for maximising health and preventing sickness and killer disease.

So how do we get Vitamin D and how do we know if we are deficient?

Good questions..

Many of you may already know that the human body is actually able to “synthesise” Vitamin D from Sunlight. Our fishy, reptile, genetic ancestors gained this neat trick, over 350 million years ago, to maintain their calcified skeletons when they slithered out of their calcium-rich ocean environment for land. (No doubt in search of a better future because living in the sea sucked!)

And we still do it to this day. We STILL synthesise Vitamin D from Sunlight.

As I will explain though, these days, this just doesn't provide us with enough.

The process is complex, but in essence, Vitamin D is made in the skin when 7-Dehydrocholesterol reacts with ultraviolet light (UVB) at wavelengths between 270 and 300 nm.

(Note that 7-Dehydrocholesterol is a CHOLESTEROL derivative, another one of the multitude of good reasons to stop picking on Cholesterol!)

I won't dwell on the science (primarily because I don't understand most of it) but what's important here are two things.

Vitamin D synthesis requires “UVB light” at “wavelengths between 270 and 300 nm”.

Unfortunately, UVB is also known as “The burning ray”. It's the type of UV that we are constantly advised to protect ourselves from, either by using sun block, covering up or simply staying out of the sun all together. The other problem, is that the optimum wavelength is only really present during the midday hours when the sun is directly overhead and at it's strongest. Again, precisely the time that health professionals tell us to stay in the shade. It should be clear then, that in the summer, obtaining Vitamin D from the sun is a tricky business. In the winter months it's even worse as UVB is almost completely unavailable from what little sun we get (Ever wondered why people get more “colds” and flu in winter – when cold viruses should, in theory, be less prevalent in cold weather?).

So it's a catch 22. UVB exposure during the midday hours can increase burning and skin cancer risk, but it also initiates beneficial responses, including stimulating the production of vitamin D.

Exposure also causes special skin cells called melanocytes to produce melanin, which is protective, so it really is a double edge sword.

Of course our ancestors – even our quite recent ones, spent a lot more time in the sun. They spent more time outdoors, they worked and played outside, they travelled around on foot and they weren't told to cover up and slap on the Ambre Solaire Factor 30!

These days we spend more time in doors, we travel in cars, we stay covered up, we use sun block. Remember that, for the magical process of Vitamin D Photosynthesis to work, it requires sunlight falling directly on exposed skin. Clothing, sun-block, shade, smog, clouds, glass windows, car windscreens, all block (or dramatically reduce) UVB and therefore the bodies ability to synthesise Vitamin D.

It's also worth noting that the further you move away from the equator (North or South) the less available UVB becomes. This is one of the reasons our skins became lighter as we migrated North and South. This was simply to allow us to make better use of the reduced levels of UVB that were available. This is also why darker skinned people living further away from the equator have an increased likelihood of Vitamin D deficiency (because there skin is naturally more protective against UVB's harmfull effects – but unfortunately, it's beneficial effect also).

As a very approximate guide, in the summer months, 20 minutes of direct sun exposure on the arms, hands and face would produce 200 IU of Vitamin D or less than 100 IU for somebody with dark skin.

So how much Vitamin D do we need? Well, before going too much further, lets try to answer that question.

There is actually some debate about this. The recommended daily amount / allowance is in the order of 400 – 600 IU (International Units) per day. This has been shown to be sufficient to maintain bone health – but not the multitude of beneficial effects that are now being researched and identified.

Bone health is what most people think about when we talk about Vitamin D. It is important because Vitamin D plays a major role in the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from the diet, and in their proper utilization. Without it, our bodies start to “de-mineralise” bone in order to obtain the calcium it needs! Very bad! This is one of the mechanisms by which Rickets and Osteoporosis occurs.

400-600 IU of Vitamin D will help keep your bones and teeth strong, and stops calcium depositing where it shouldn't (for example in our blood vessels, heart and kidneys).


Many forward thinking health professionals now argue that 400 – 600 IU per day is inadequate (by a factor or 5 - 8 times!) for optimum health, guarding against sickness and reducing risk of many killer diseases. Also bear in mind that many of us may not even be getting the RDA!!

Contemporary recommendations suggest a total daily dose (from all sources) of between 2000 – 5000 IU as being optimal.

As we should now hopefully realise, obtaining these levels from sun exposure is just not practical (or safe, due to burning, cancer and skin ageing risk). So how do we obtain this much Vitamin D?

What about food?

Well Vitamin D is available through our diet but in woefully small amounts. The one possible exception is Cod liver oil. This is a very rich source of Vitamin D, 500 IU per teaspoon in fact. But is it a food though? Mmm, not something I consume on a daily basis! To me it's a supplement.

Oily fish like salmon, tuna, herring and mackerel are also good sources, but modern farming methods have reduced the Vitamin D content considerably. Same goes for chickens, pigs, cows, that spend most of their lives indoors (another good reason to buy free range). Milk along with some other foods are fortified with Vitamin D, but again in quite small amounts (200 IU per pint)– sufficient for contributing towards bone health, but not much else. By the way – it's worth noting that, since Vitamin D is fat soluble, the small amount in skimmed milk is pretty much worthless anyway. One of the many good reasons to switch to whole milk (more on milk in an upcoming blog post!).

Another great natural source is LARD! Yes, rendered pig fat! – the stuff that is supposed to be so bad for us, turns out to be nutritionally very beneficial (and incidentally – now proven NOT to increase heart disease risk, like all other saturated fats – but regular readers of my blog already know this!).

This raises another very important point – the diet still advocated by many dietitians and health professionals (low fat, high carb, small amounts of meat etc) is simply not conducive to obtaining adequate amounts of Vitamin D. Another good reason why this way of eating is fundamentally flawed!

It is highly likely that our Paleotithic ancestors we able to gain much larger amounts of Vitamin D, than modern man, through increased sun exposure, and from thier natural "hunter, gatherer" diet that contained rich sources of vitamin D. Many of these sources are no longer frequently eaten by modern man or even available! (animal skin, blubber, internal organs etc). It's quite possible that these levels of Vitamin D went some way to protecting our ancestors from the killer diseases that are now on the increase. (They had other stuff to be worried about like getting eaten by Sabre toothed tigers!)

So, considering all of the above, it's fair to hypothesise that a very large percentage of the UK population will have sub optimal Vitamin D levels. Supplementation is therefore the only sure fire way of guaranteeing you obtain sufficient Vitamin D on a daily basis for optimum health.

Now I'm certainly in no position to advice anybody on their specific Vitamin D requirements. It's based on far too many variables to issue a “one size fits all” amount. A blood test is your only sure way of understanding your vitamin D requirements. However, use the following information as you see fit....

I take a Vitamin D3 supplement of 2500 IU per day and to, my knowledge, doses up to 5000 IU per day are totally safe. Toxicity levels are only reached after an intake in excess of 40,000 IU per day. This would be very hard to obtain unless you were overdosing on supplements or using supplements of dubious origin where actual amounts might be inaccurate (so always go with a well known brand – I use myprotein 2000 UI Vitamin D3)

Little bit more about dosing here along with loads of other useful information

So what can we expect?

Vitamin D is not some new fangled wonder “drug” It's been around since we climbed out of the “primordial soup” - It's a Pro hormone and without it, we die. The same cannot be said of any herbal “health supplement”. They are all "optional" - Vitamin D is not!

To optimise health and minimise sickness and disease risk, Vitamin D is required in quantities well beyond the current RDA and in quantities that are hard to obtain through contemporary sunlight exposure and our modern diet alone.

I can't possibly detail all the potential health benefits of Vitamin D supplementation, suffice to say the claims made at the beginning of this blog have been well researched and are well founded.

If you'd like a little more detail I can recommend this pod cast by Dr Michael Holick, author of “The Vitamin D Solution”

It's a no brainer right? So why then do so many of us (I've done it!) waste money on fancy supplements, remedies and questionable drug therapies when something so simple can have such profoundly beneficial effects? And why are these incredible benefits from such a simple source not more widely known?
Well what interest would drug companies have in a product that costs less than 4 p for a daily dose when they can charge 40 TIMES that for a single pill of a cholesterol busting (Statin) drug like Lipitor?

It's not like it's got anything to do with keeping people healthy right?

Liptor made Pifzer 7.2 Billion US Dollars last year...So go figure!

Nobody is getting rich on Vitamin D...

But hopefully we can all get healthier!


  1. Great stuff.. Always interesting subject matter. Incidently I could do with a boost to the immune system - small kids really catch & spread lots of colds!

  2. Interesting - I always thought I was 'solar powered' - having a huge boost in athletic performance and general well being in warmer weather. There must be something in that?....

  3. Absolutely Rich, I'm convinced it's is why so many of us get though to the end of winter feeling pretty run down.

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  5. I've written about vitamin D on Dietriffic, too, and I'm also totally convinced of its importance.

    1. Great Stuff, Mel - the more spreading the word the better! Crazy when I consider all these suspect herbal suppliments people take - at great expense, yet overlook a comparatively cheap pro-hormone / vitamin like D!!