Are We Doing Enough to Stay Healthy? Focus on Vitamin D
By Paul Davis:
Are we doing enough to stay healthy? It’s a good question to ask ourselves every now and again. However, it’s kind of a difficult and open-ended question to answer, isn’t it? From the media we get a lot of sound bites about eating healthy, being active, preventing disease. There’s a lot of hype about new diets, tricks and bio-hacks for losing weight and staying young and healthy. There is a lot of debate about what constitutes a healthy diet and lifestyle. A lot of people are thinking ‘If everything is bad for me, then why bother? On the other hand, a lot of people are getting their health information from very biased and inaccurate sources. So…what is a common sense approach?
In my previous articles I explored the diet and lifestyle factors that support healthy aging in
general (Aug 2015) and more specifically for the prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease (Nov
2015). The take home message was that whatever helps support Healthy Aging, also helps
with the prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease. With some specific variations, the same can be
said of most other degenerative diseases; including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes,
osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. In this article I will explore what evidence exists for the use of
specific natural health products to supplement your healthy diet and lifestyle.
Of course, the base of a healthy lifestyle should be a micronutrient-rich, non-processed diet
with a high proportion of plant-based foods. Eating a diet composed on mostly unhealthy food
and taking supplements to compensate will only yield poor results, at best. Health Canada
recommends eating 7-8 servings of vegetables and fruits per day for teens and adults. Even
conscientious people usually fall below this target! If you want a food-based approach to
maintaining and improving your health, then definitely keep working on the vegetable and fruit
intake! And, as I’ve stated in my previous articles, have a wide variety of vegetables and fruits
and select high-quality, organically-grown produce when possible.
But what else can be done to upgrade our nutrition? The following is a short list of things to
consider: Vitamin D, Vitamin K2, Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Probiotics. As supplements, these
are all very popular at the moment. At low dosages they pose little or no risk of harm. At high
dosages they should be recommended or prescribed by a health care practitioner who has an
in-depth knowledge of nutrition and nutraceuticals as well as your personal health needs. In
this article I will explore and explain some important facts about Vitamin D.
Vitamin D ‘the sunshine vitamin’ is produced in our bodies when our skin is exposed to
sunlight. However, since we live in Canada and have a significantly long winter, most
Canadians will need a supplemented source of Vitamin D during the winter months. For those
Canadians who spend most of their time indoors, they will likely need to supplement during
the summer as well. In other words, our personal requirements from supplementation will
If you live in the southern United States, your body can produce Vitamin D most of the year. If
you live in most parts of Canada, you can’t produce much, or will produce none at all, through
the months of November to March. If you have a darker skin colour, Fitzpatrick Skin Types 5
and 6, you will need more sun exposure to produce the same amount of Vitamin D as a
person of lighter skin colour. If you have very light skin colour, eg.,Fitzpatrick Skin Types 1
and 2, you may be putting yourself at risk for skin cancer if you are spending time in the sun
just to get your Vitamin D level up.
Vitamin D is necessary for proper bone health, immune regulation, glucose regulation, neuroprotection,
mood regulation, cell growth rate and differentiation, blood pressure regulation and
many other important functions. In general, 400 to 1000 IU/day is recommended as sufficient
and safe for adults, but this intake level may not provide optimal Vitamin D for all individuals.
For example, Osteoporosis Canada recommends an intake of 800 to 2000 IU/day for men
and women 50 years of age and older.
I see a lot patients who, when tested, have low levels of Vitamin D. Some of them were
supplementing with Vitamin D and were still deficient. Because of all of it’s health benefits and
the fact that some people seem to need more intake to achieve optimal blood levels, I believe
that it is very important to test your level of Vitamin D with a blood test. Even though in most
cases you will need to pay out of pocket to have your Vitamin D level checked, I still think it’s
worth it to know what your current level is. In general this will cost around $30.00. If your level
is low, then your health care provider will likely recommend taking a supplement. A follow up
test at about 3 or 4 months will let you know if your blood level of Vitamin D has increased
into the normal range or not. At that point, you and your health care provider can decide on a
longer term intake per day.
This is referred to a test-treat-test approach and is the best way to ensure that a normal blood
level of Vitamin D has been reached. After this, testing once a year will tell you if your levels
are staying in normal range or not. You can test at any time, or either in winter (February to
March) or summer (July to August) to assess whether you are achieving a steady state of
adequate Vitamin D throughout the year.
There are 2 types of Vitamin D; D2 and D3. As I’ve stated above, our bodies make Vitamin D3
from sunshine. Other sources of D3 are fatty fish, egg yolks, beef and other livers, and cod
liver oil. Supplemental D3 is usually extracted from the lanolin found in sheep wool. It can be
made from true vegan sources as well; eg., from lichen for example. Small amounts of D2
occur naturally in mushrooms. However, most available D2 is synthesized from the irradiation
of mushrooms, yeast or plants. It is then added to supplement processed foods such as
cereals, milk (though some brands use D3), orange juice and is the main form that occurs in
prescriptions for Vitamin D.
D2 is less bio-active than D3. For example, it takes about twice as much D2 to increase a 25-
OH D3, the main form of Vitamin D in the blood. Advocates of D2 supplementation respond
by saying that taking a bit more will take care of any difference in activity level. However, the
nutritional effects of D2 in the body are also different in other ways that are significant. A
recent Cochrane Review of 50 randomized controlled trials including 94,000 subjects showed
mortality rates were lower for those that used D3 long term and higher for those that used D2
long term. There is a strong trend away from supplemental use of D2 in preference for D3.
Finally, just a brief note about Vitamin K2. Like Vitamin D it is a fat-soluble vitamin. Many
nutrition experts now recommend taking Vitamin K2 along with Vitamin D because they work
together. I’ll be writing more about this in my next article.
Hope you found this article interesting and informative! Are you doing enough? Are there
some areas in your diet and lifestyle you’d like to work on? Would you like to do more?
Paul Davis BSc ND has practiced Naturopathic Medicine with a keen interest in nutrition for 26 years. Currently he has a private practice at TalkTouchMove and teaches at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.
P: 416 761 9722