In recent years, supplementing vitamin D has been touted as somewhat of a cure-all, but I’m a huge skeptic, and I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Just like all other dietary trends, the truth surfaces eventually… and surprise-surprise that truth is that a pill or supplement is NEVER the cure-all we’re led to believe. If low vitamin D doesn’t mean you just need to supplement vitamin D, what does it mean?
What low vitamin D can REALLY reveal
It appears that low vitamin D levels are the result of ill health, but not the cause. Low vitamin D levels can reveal a host of things:
- Ill health – According to a recent study done in December 2013 in Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, “The discrepancy between observational and interventional studies suggests that low 25(OH)D is a marker of ill health.” (6)
- Low calcium intake – Chris Masterjohn explains that vitamin D levels and calcium levels go hand in hand. “Overall, then, we would expect that a deficiency in calcium would cause low 25(OH)D, and that correcting the deficiency would normalize the 25(OH)D, but that beyond a certain threshold, increasing calcium intake might not increase 25(OH)D any further.” (source) Additionally, he adds, “As a rule of thumb, then, I would say that if someone has low 25(OH)D and she is eating two to three servings of dairy products or soft, edible bones, or two to three cups of cruciferous vegetables per day (which have their downsides), then calcium deficiency is unlikely to be the explanation. If one is not eating these foods, however, it could very easily be the explanation. In such a case, the person has little to lose and much to gain by including more calcium-rich foods.” (4)
- Poor digestion – Low vitamin D status can also be a reflector of poor gut health, especially since proper digestion is a precursor to good health. You can’t be healthy without good digestion to break down your food and make it available and absorbable by the body. Digestion is king when it comes to health, and there are a host of reasons why people have poor digestion. The ones I see most frequently are due to a slowed metabolism, low nutrient diet, and chronic stress.
- Low magnesium intake – “Intake of magnesium significantly interacted with intake of vitamin D in relation to risk of both vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency.” (7)
- Malnourished liver – Liver health plays a role in the absorption of vitamin D, because it affects both the production and flow of bile. Bile emulsifies fat (vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin), and makes it more available for absorption in the gut.
Vitamin D supplements – a magic bullet that may not be so magic?
As you may see, taking a vitamin D supplement is a bit beside the point, because it does not address the root cause of low vitamin D levels; a host of other issues contributing to “ill” health.
However you slice it, vitamin D is still a hormone, and supplementation should be considered carefully, especially since there can be risks of mega dosing. According to Chris Masterjohn, “Vitamin D can be a double-edged sword: adequate vitamin D prevents heart disease, but too much vitamin D promotes heart disease. The available evidence suggests that the lowest risk of heart disease occurs when vitamin D status is between 20 and 40 ng/mL.” (5)
Aside from the risks of supplementing, there are sourcing and integrity issues. Most supplements are often low quality, contain irritating additives/fillers, and most of the raw materials are imported without strict regulation regarding safety and purity. Additionally, most supplements were not created to reflect how you find nutrients in real food. You see, when your body is carrying out a task, it needs not only one nutrient, but a combination of nutrients in balance to one another. For example, when your body is building bone, you not only need vitamin D, but you also need vitamin K2, calcium, magnesium, and good digestion (strong stomach acid to uptake calcium). When you take just a single one of those nutrients, it isn’t necessarily going to do you any good! This makes food the safest supplement, because you have control over the quality, and you get the nutrients along with any co-factors that go along with it. For example, when you drink milk, you get vitamin D from whole milk, and you also get vitamin A and calcium.
Vitamin D Supplement Side Effects
Naturopathic doctor Garrett Smith explains that according to hair analysis, vitamin D supplementation increases calcium levels and drives down potassium levels, which may make your metabolic rate slower since the calcium-to-potassium ratio in hair analysis shows how well your thyroid hormones are functioning ( a high calcium-to-potassium ratio = lower function). (2,3,9)
Dr. Smith warns, “Taking calcium and/or Vitamin D will provide a push to absorb more calcium from the gut and also to raise calcium levels in the blood, this is what these nutrients do and makes sense. The question becomes, when that calcium goes up higher than desirable in the blood, how does the body compensate for it? I’m going to tell you that it transfers it into “savings accounts” to clear it from the blood that you really won’t like…calcium deposits in the joints (aka osteoarthritis), kidneys (stones), blood vessels (heart disease), and even the brain.” (10)
I always question supplement trends, especially anything marketed as a “cure-all” or “easy button.”
I’d rather make sure I have a good source of calcium in my diet (such as A2 dairy products, bone broth, sardines, etc.), magnesium (like dark chocolate, fresh fruit and transdermal sources), and food sources of vitamin D such as roe, egg yolks, whole milk (without additives) and natural sources like the sun.
P.S. just a reminder, I’m not a Doctor or your nutritional therapist, so don’t take my opinion as personal advice. Read my full disclaimer here.
5 Nutrient deficiencies you don’t know you have!
Do you have low vitamin D levels? Please share in the comments what you think!
4. Masterjohn, Christopher. An Ancestral Perspective on Vitamin D Status, Part 2: Why Low 25(OH)D Could Indicate a Deficiency of Calcium Instead of Vitamin D. The Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts. Published online 2013 December 19.
5. Masterjohn, Christopher. Beyond Cholesterol. The Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts. Published online 2014 January 20.
6. Prof Philippe Autier MD,Prof Mathieu Boniol PhD,Cécile Pizot MSc,Prof Patrick Mullie PhD. Vitamin D status and ill health: a systematic review. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology – 1 January 2014 ( Vol. 2, Issue 1, Pages 76-89 ).
7. Xinqing Deng, Yiqing Song, JoAnn E Manson, Lisa B Signorello, Shumin M Zhang, Martha J Shrubsole, Reid M Ness, Douglas L Seidner, Qi Dai Magnesium, vitamin D status and mortality: results from US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2001 to 2006 and NHANES III. BMC Med. 2013; 11: 187. Published online 2013 August 27.doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-187
8. Zittermann, Armin. Magnesium deficit ? overlooked cause of low vitamin D status? BMC Med.2013;11: 229. Published online 2013 October 24.
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.com/krasyd