Vitamin D and the Connection to Health and Weight – All Your Questions Answered

The Ultimate Guide to Vitamin D and it’s Connection to Health and Weight

Hi, this is Galit Goldfarb, nutritionist and medical scientist, and welcome to my blog where you will find great articles to help you transform your health easily through practical lifestyle changes based on science. My articles will guide you, step-by-step, to lasting weight loss and better health for you and your family no matter your current situation.

Today I will talk about the connection between vitamin D and your health and your weight.

An estimated 1 billion people from all ethnicities and age groups are vitamin D deficient (1, 2, 3, 4). We shall look into these startling statistics in this article, and we shall examine why we are deficient and how to prevent this deficiency that has an unyielding impact on our health.

Previously,  Vitamin D the essential fat-soluble, hormone-like vitamin was known to be used by the body for the proper absorption of calcium, bone development and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth and adequate phosphorus uptake.

We previously knew that vitamin D deficiency was involved in osteomalacia (a condition of weakened muscles and bones) and rickets (a disease in which bones fail to develop properly).

Due to the high numbers of rickets cases in the early 1900’s, Vitamin D was added to processed foods to prevent this deficiency.

Nowadays vitamin D research has come a long way due to the cheap testing available allowing scientists to take a deeper look at this vitamin and its effects on our health.

Vitamin D: Health Benefits:

We now know that Vitamin D is not only involved in bone and tooth health but also involved in:

Cell growth, proper neuromuscular functioning, proper immune function, proper brain function, and protects against many diseases and conditions including cancer, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis,  leukemia, and is also involved in weight loss.

Vitamin D and weight loss:

A study which looked at younger healthy populations revealed a significant negative relationship between BMI levels and serum levels of Vitamin D. The researchers also noted a positive correlation between cardiovascular fitness and Vitamin D3 levels.

Another study showed that low vitamin D concentrations are associated with a higher fat mass percentage. Furthermore, Vitamin D status is positively associated with lean body mass (LBM).

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that Vitamin D levels in the body at the start of a low-calorie diet predict weight loss success. Additionally, higher baseline vitamin D levels predicted greater loss of abdominal fat.

We now know that Vitamin D deficiency affects almost every organ and function of our body. But how is this possible?

The reason comes from two facts:

1. Vitamin D is not really a vitamin. A vitamin is defined as an essential nutrient that your body cannot produce and must be acquired from the diet. Vitamin D is actually a hormone because it regulates body physiology and our bodies are capable of producing our own vitamin D through the action of sunlight on our skin. We don’t receive the vitamin itself, but a precursor to the vitamin that goes through a process in the liver and kidneys to produce the vitamin for use by the body. We are actually getting the vitamin D precursor from our diet or the sunlight, and then it is converted into vitamin D3, the active form in our kidneys.

2. Vitamin D influences the expression of genes. It is needed for all cell renewal and protein transcription due to its role in allowing access to the DNA of the cell and allowing the cells to get the information needed for protein production. Therefore, we have Vitamin D receptors in almost all cells of our body including bone cells, white blood cells, muscle cells, heart tissue cells, brain cells, endocrine glands, prostate gland, etc.

For these reasons, when we have vitamin D deficiency, it wreaks havoc on the whole body. For example, deficiency in vitamin D is now known to lead to:

A weakened immune system, increased cancer risk, poor hair and nail growth, cognitive impairment and loss of balance in older adults, increased risk of death from heart disease, increased risk of prostate cancer, and leukemia, inadequate insulin levels and decreased lung function.

But why are we deficient in vitamin D?

Vitamin D is imperative to our health and throughout our history, living on the savanna grasslands of Africa for over 2 million years until some groups migrated out of Africa 60,000 years ago, we were receiving plenty of sunlight without any risk of deficiency from this nutrient.

But nowadays, things are different.

1. We spend much of our days in offices. We arrive early in the morning and leave after dark never to see enough of the healthy UVB rays from sunlight that convert cholesterol on our skin into calciol (vitamin D3). This Vitamin D3 moves to the liver where it is converted into calcidiol (25-hydroxyvitamin D3). When vitamin D is needed, it is moved into the kidneys and transformed into the active form of vitamin D, called calcitriol (1,25-hydroxyvitamin D3). The conversion to calcitriol is regulated by its own concentration, parathyroid hormone, and serum levels of calcium and phosphate.

2. The modern use of statins and other medications or supplements that inhibit cholesterol synthesis, liver function or kidney function impair the synthesis of vitamin D and lead to its deficiency.

3. Furthermore, since the early 1950’s, the food industry supplemented processed foods with vitamin D so that people wouldn’t suffer from rickets, but nowadays, people are becoming wiser consumers and fewer people are consuming processed foods, and we see vitamin deficiency spring up again.

4. But not only that, even when we go on holiday to warm countries, we’ve become so scared of the sun that we use sunscreen, which reflects the healthy UVB radiation away. We still should use sunscreen because the ozone layer isn’t whole as it was in the days before we started burning fossil fuels as energy to fuel our modern day lifestyles. but we should only apply sunscreen after getting sufficient sunlight to produce enough vitamin D as presented in the chart below.

5. It is not easy to get vitamin D from foods, only very few foods have the provitamin available.

6. UVB radiation is most active between 11 in the morning and three in the afternoon in places and times where available. During the other hours, UVA radiation is more prominent and doesn’t supply us with vitamin D. However, if you live on a longitude line above 35º, during the winter months you will not have any UVB radiation. This radiation doesn’t reach the northern hemisphere in winter.

How can you determine whether you are Vitamin D deficient or not?

A simple blood test can determine your vitamin levels, and levels below 40 ng/mL are considered a deficiency. The optimal range being 40-60 ng/mL.

You probably are deficient in Vitamin D if any of these apply to you: 

1. You have dark skin

Darker skinned populations that are living at high longitude lines are at greater risk for vitamin D deficiency because darker skins need more sun exposure to produce the same amount of vitamin D as pale skin does. Skin pigmentation acts as a natural sunscreen. The darker you are, the more pigment you have, and the more pigment you have, the more time you’ll need to spend in the sun to make adequate amounts of vitamin D.

2. You feel depressed

The feel-good hormone serotonin is raised with exposure to sunlight and decreases with little sun exposure. In 2006, a study examined the effects of vitamin D on the mental health of 80 elderly patients and found those deficient in vitamin D were eleven times more prone to depression than those who had sufficient vitamin D through supplementation.

3. You’re aged 60 + or if you take cholesterol reducing medications

When you age, your skin makes less vitamin D in response to UVB exposure. Your liver and kidneys may not be in their best condition, and the kidneys may not be converting vitamin D into the active D3 form efficiently. Medications also interfere with Vitamin D production.

4. You suffer from bone pain

According to Dr. Michael F. Holick, an American endocrinologist specializing in the field of vitamin D for over 40 years states that people who see their doctor for aches and pains, especially in combination with fatigue, may be misdiagnosed as having fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome when they actually have a vitamin D deficiency. He explains: ”What’s happening is that the vitamin D deficiency causes a defect in putting calcium into the collagen matrix into your skeleton. As a result, you have throbbing, aching bone pain.”

5. You are overweight or obese

People who are overweight or obese (or Have a Higher Muscle Mass) have higher needs for Vitamin D because body fat collects the vitamin D. Being overweight or obese, increases vitamin D requirements, and the same goes for weight lifters and body builders with increased muscle mass.

So how do we ensure we get enough of this vital nutrient?

1. Sunlight

Get some sunlight before applying sunscreen. But how much is enough? Depending on the number of UVB rays available. Today any weather app also shows you the UV index for your location, and you can use it to determine how much sunlight you need to get for optimal vitamin D intake in the following chart:

Skin Type UVIndex 0-2 UVIndex 3-5 UVIndex 6-7 UVIndex 8-10 UVIndex 11+
Always burns/ Doesn’t tan None 10-15 min 5-10 min 2-8 min 1-5 min
Easily burns/ Rarely tans None 10-20 min 10-15 min 5-8 min 2-8 min
Sometime burns/ Slowly tans None 20-30 min 15-20 min 10-15 min 5-10 min
Rarely burns/ Rapidly tans None 30-40 min 20-30 min 15-20 min 10-15 min
Never Burns/ Always dark None 40-60 min 30-40 min 20-30 min 15-20 min

When sunlight reaches our skin, it is also involved in the production of endorphins which make us feel good and feel happier.

Sunlight exposure in moderation has even been shown to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

Expose your skin to sunlight in moderation, and you will be healthier and happier.

Note that Vitamin D has a half-life of only two weeks, meaning that stores can run low after two weeks, especially during the winter.

2. Food 

Previously we thought that the only natural foods that contain sufficient vitamin D were oily fish, and mushrooms. Now we know that also many types of meat provide vitamin D. If we live above 35 longitude line and we don’t eat or meat we may feel depressed especially during winter months. The reason is not that we lack meat but rather that vitamin D levels are low. Oily fish such as Mackerel provide 100% of our daily recommended need of Vitamin D per 3 oz portion, smoked Salmon provides 90% of our daily recommended need of Vitamin D per 3 oz portion, Canned Trout provides 94% of our daily recommended requirement of Vitamin D per 3 oz portion. Mushrooms may be a great source of natural vitamin D when exposed to sunlight before their consumption. This action increases their vitamin D levels. So if mushrooms are placed outside in the sun UVB rays before adding them to your food, you will get sufficient vitamin D if you eat them daily. For example, Maitake mushrooms provide 131% of our daily recommended need of Vitamin D per cup; Portobello mushrooms provide 74% of our daily recommended need of Vitamin D per cup, Morel mushrooms provide 23% of our daily recommended requirement of Vitamin D per cup.  But consumption of such high levels per day is a highly unlikely scenario since in most of the world does not have sufficient UVB rays (as mentioned above) and consuming so many mushrooms and fish on a daily basis is unrealistic for most of us.

Keep in mind, when I mention the recommended daily value, this is the very minimum that was found to prevent disease. It is far from being the ideal amount of vitamin D intake per day. Furthermore, from the food, we get vitamin D in the form D2 (ergocalciferol), which is metabolized differently from D3 (cholecalciferol) and less efficient on a per mole basis. Furthermore, no successful clinical trials to date have shown that vitamin D2 prevents fractures.

3. UVB Narrowband Lamps

Similar to tanning beds, but not quite the same,  they provide access to only the good UVB radiation without the skin burning and skin cancer causing waves. That’s why they are called narrowband because they provide light radiation in a small light bandwidth (295-311 nanometers). These solve the problem for anyone living above the 35º longitude line during the long winter months deprived of the beneficial UVB radiation.

4. Supplementation

It is best to obtain some vitamin D in your diet and concentrate on adding sunlight exposure. That being said, during the winter months, if you believe you lack vitamin D due to your location and your skin tone, I suggest you use supplements. Total recommended intake can vary from about 2000 IU to 4000 IU per day, including what you get from diet and sunlight. If you are using supplementation, go for about 2000 IU per day and ensure that the supplement you choose to buy has no more than two ingredients, (olive oil and vitamin D3). This conscious consumption will help prevent regular intake of different chemicals to your body. Furthermore, when you take vitamin D as a supplement, you’re creating an increased demand for Vitamin K2. Your body will make more vitamin K2-dependent proteins that will move the calcium around the body. These have a lot of potential health benefits. But until the K2 comes in to activate those proteins, those benefits aren’t realized. Therefore, when supplementing daily with Vitamin D, take vitamin K2 three times a week because vitamin D and K2 work together to improve your heart health and strengthen your bones. Vitamin K2 is mainly found in specific animal foods and fermented foods, which most people don’t eat much of. Vitamin K2 is also produced by gut bacteria in the large intestine, and there is some evidence that use of broad-spectrum antibiotics can contribute to K2 deficiency (27, 28).

Vitamin D made from sunlight will last 2 to 3 times longer in the body than vitamin D taken as a supplement.

Note: Although rare, excess vitamin D can be reached with excess supplementation. Excessive supplementation will lead the body to absorb too much calcium, leading to increased risk of a heart attack as well as kidney stones. 20,000 IU is the toxicity level.

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