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Why Vitamin D Supplements Can’t Replace Sunshine

Affiliate Disclosure | in Natural Remedies | by | with 86 Comments

[info_box] Note from Mommypotamus: I realize that some people who read this have experienced the pain and difficulty of skin cancer, either personally or with a loved one. I would never dare to invalidate these experiences or to treat them lightly. It is my hope that by providing this research, which is based off the work of a senior MIT scientist and a former cancer and DNA research scientist, I will make a compelling case for re-examining our cultural attitudes about sunlight.  I am not a doctor and I do not advocate sunburns at all, but it is my opinion that responsible sunlight exposure positively affects our health when a good diet with plenty of healthy fats/ antioxidants are present. My writing reflects a commitment to that lifestyle. Comments are welcome no matter your opinion, but please show kindness to one another.[/info_box]

The other day I was talking to this Senior Researcher at MIT . . .

Hanging out at Wise Traditions with Emily of Holistic Kid and Kristen of Food Renegade

Man, I can’t believe I finally got to say that! It’s been #184 on my unofficial bucket list for, like, ever! Now to cross off #185  . . . does anybody know where I can find a cranberry bog? 

Back to the subject at hand, though. I contacted Dr. Stephanie Seneff after hearing her speak on Nutrition and Metabolism at the Wise Traditions conference last year. Micah and I were in a rather rowdy toddler room with the sound piped in, but I **thought** I heard her say that Vitamin D3 supplements were basically useless. But she couldn’t have said that, right? Vitamin D supplements are sunshine in a bottle!

Maybe not. 

“My personal belief is that vitamin D supplements are useless,” Dr. Seneff recently confirmed via email. According to her, it’s what happens right before our bodies make vitamin D that makes all the difference: the oxidation of cholesterol and sulfur on our skin.

“Both cholesterol and sulfur afford protection in the skin from radiation damage to the cell’s DNA, the kind of damage that can lead to skin cancer. Cholesterol and sulfur become oxidized upon exposure to the high frequency rays in sunlight, thus acting as antioxidants to “take the heat,” so to speak. Oxidation of cholesterol is the first step in the process by which cholesterol transforms itself into vitamin D3.” (source)

This process yields Vitamin D sulfate, which is vastly different than plant-based Vitamin D2 and animal-based Vitamin D3.

“Upon exposure to the sun, the skin synthesizes vitamin D3 Sulfate, a form of vitamin D that, unlike unsulfated vitamin D3, is water soluble. As a consequence, it can travel freely in the blood stream rather than encapsulated inside LDL (the so-called “bad” cholesterol) for transport. The form of vitamin D that is present in both human milk and raw cow’s milk is vitamin D3 sulfate (pasteurization destroys it in cow’s milk).” (emphasis mine, source)

The transformation of sulfur into sulfate is essential to good health because “it populates the extracellular matrix proteins of all the cells and keeps them healthy,” says Seneff. “It’s especially important in the blood for keeping microbes at bay  . . . which is why it appears that vitamin D builds a stronger immune system (I don’t think this is correct –I think it’s the sulfate that gets produced in the skin upon sunlight exposure that protects the immune system, and the vitamin D is just an indirect measure of sunlight exposure — that is, unless you get your vitamin D predominantly from supplements).” (emphasis mine, source)

But, Surely . . .

The body can convert D3 supplements into D3 sulfate, right? Unfortunately, though our bodies are genius chemists that does not appear to be possible. Synthesis of cholesterol into D3 and sulfur into sulfate occur simultaneously, like mixing eggs and flour/salt/water to bake a cake. You can’t put the eggs in the oven, bake at 350F for 45 minutes and then pull out the pan and add the flour, right? Same thing here.

Interestingly, Vitamin D3 and Vitamin D3 sulfate are each beneficial in their own way. For example, plain ole D3 is amazing at transporting calcium through the body, whereas:

“The sulfated form of vitamin D does not work for calcium transport . . . [However] it’s the sulfated form of vitamin D that offers the protection from cancer. It strengthens your immune system. It protects you from cardiovascular disease. It’s good for your brain. It helps depression. I think all of those effects of vitamin D are effects of vitamin D sulfate.”

Sounds pretty good, except if you’re like me you want the calcium transport, too! No worries, after Vitamin D sulfate does it’s thing it converts back to pure Vitamin D and gets to work on bone health. Or, as Dr. Seneff put it “vitamin D3 sulfate parks its sulfate somewhere among the extracellular matrix proteins, helping the blood to stay healthy.  Having done that, it becomes vitamin D3 and can then transport calcium.”

What About Cod Liver Oil?

No discussion of D3 supplements is complete without talking about my favorite supplement, fermented cod liver oil. It contains Vitamin D3 instead of D3 sulfate, but both Dr. Seneff and I still recommend it. I can’t speak to all of her reasons, but I can tell you mine:

Dr. Weston A. Price has firmly established the benefits of consuming fat soluble vitamins A, D, E , and K. Unlike D3 drops which isolate one component, fermented cod liver oil is a delicate balance of beneficial co-factors, enzymes, essential fatty acids, antioxidants and micronutrients. Specifically, Vitamin D works with Vitamin A to utilize calcium and phosphorous in the body. Contrary to what we have heard carrots contain betacarotene, not Vitamin A, so it is very likely that using D drops alone only gives us part of what we need for calcium transport. That’s why I take fermented cod liver oil in the winter months when Vitamin D when production from skin is low.

Wait, isn’t that Vitamin D supplementation? Yes . . . yes it is.  

The fact is our bodies don’t make much Vitamin D during the winter, and supplementation from whole food sources makes sense. BUT – we still need sunshine to synthesize sulfate! Even in winter our skin can do this by synthesizing another compound, cholesterol sulfate – just add sunlight!

Is it a good idea to consume Vitamin D rich foods during the winter? Or even D3 drops if that is not available? Though I deeply respect Dr. Seneff’s research, I think so. As Kristen of Food Renegade said in the comments:

“The ideal is to eat enough cholesterol from good animal sources and get enough sunshine so that Vitamin D levels are never a problem. The next best thing is to eat superfoods high in Vitamin D and other complimentary nutrients — like fermented cod liver oil. Perhaps the next best thing is to have quality, whole food based supplements that may mimic the synergistic nature of a superfood (I’m thinking of brands like Standard Process and their various Cataplex suplements). And finally, although it may be useless for some things, like the creation of sulfate, there’s the intake of a straight up isolated Vitamin D3 supplement which still has measurable benefits as study after study has proven. (And of course the BAD option would be to take no supplements and eat a Standard American Diet and expose yourself regularly to environmental toxins while not having a healthy enough body to eliminate them.)

Sometimes, we can’t let the good be the enemy of the ideal. And, of course, that means we should know what the ideal *is*.”

Coming up in this series: Why most “healthy” sunscreens contain ingredients that cause DNA deletions in mice, using common sense in the sun, how antioxidants prevent sunburn, how to make your own sunscreen and a giveaway!

Note: I have been asked several times if I take fermented cod liver oil during the spring/summer months. The answer is yes, and I’ll explain why later this week!

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a nutritionist and this site does not provide medical advice. Please see my full disclaimer here.
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86 Responses to Why Vitamin D Supplements Can’t Replace Sunshine

  1. […] Why Vitamin D Supplements Can’t Replace Sunshine « The Mommypotamus […]

  2. Karen says:

    I recently found out I am severely Vit D deficient, and have been in the past as well. This time I’m searching for a way to correct the problem, instead of “bandaid it”. Thank you so much for providing this research and commentary Mommypotamus! I now feel like my prayers have been answered, and I have a good plan of how to get my body healthy. I’ll keep you updated. 😉

  3. […] or applied directly to the skin. They do this not by blocking UV rays which help our bodies make Vitamin D sulfate and reduce our risk of breast, colon, prostate and many other cancers.  For an deeper look at why […]

  4. […] Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that is essential for maintaining strong healthy bones, a healthy immune system, and avoiding several types of cancer is a nutrient most people are deficient in. The precursors of vitamin D are formed when the skin comes into contact with sunlight. This is the most effective way to healthfully raise Vitamin D levels.  You can have your Vitamin D levels tested by your physician. There are many fat soluble supplements that can be used and the EWG, while encouraging adequate vitamin D levels to reduce the chances for skin cancer, encourages supplementation in their post about Vitamin D. Mommypotomus wrote a wonderful, well supported, article about how sunlight is the optimal way to reach and maintain proper vitamin D levels here. […]

  5. Annie says:

    This is interesting information. However, I live on the CA/OR border where getting enough sunshine in the winter is a problem. I found out a few years ago that I was severely deficient in Vitamin D, so began using supplements. These supplements cured my depression as well as my chronic illnesses. Once my D levels were back to normal, I stopped being constantly sick with colds, flu, etc., and if I do get a cold a couple of times a year it is not nearly as severe or long lasting as then. So I would not discount the efficacy of Vitamin D. I’m all for getting nutrition through foods but in my case, that was not working.

  6. […] and get to an unsafe level very quickly. Lastly, and most importantly, the D3 in supplement form isn’t the same as the D3 created by sunlight, and it acts differently on the body. There is no proof it provides […]

  7. […] According to Kristen, this is one of those instances in which Vitamin D supplements cannot replace sunshine. Studies comparing fermented cod liver oil vs. sunlight show that magnesium absorption goes WAY up […]

  8. […] Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that is essential for maintaining strong healthy bones, a healthy immune system, and avoiding several types of cancer is a nutrient most people are deficient in. The precursors of vitamin D are formed when the skin comes into contact with sunlight. This is the most effective way to healthfully raise Vitamin D levels.  You can have your Vitamin D levels tested by your physician. There are many fat soluble supplements that can be used and the EWG, while encouraging adequate vitamin D levels to reduce the chances for skin cancer, encourages supplementation in their post about Vitamin D. Mommypotomus wrote a wonderful, well supported, article about how sunlight is the optimal way to reach and maintain proper vitamin D levels here. […]

  9. roberta says:

    I have a question, I read stephs information and I am curious is cholesterol sulfate and vitad3 the same substance? I don’t think I produce it with sun exposure, as I did the sunbathing as much as possible, developed a nice tan without using anything else and did not improve even following a lower carb diet with carbs that are whole and minimally processed I was careful not to wash off my oils for a day ot two before taking a bath, can you make cholesterol sulfate in your skin but not vitad3? vitad3 supplements have been helping but the problem is I have to mega dose on it. I keep an eye on my symptoms to make sure I don’t take too much vitad3, I take it on a empty stomach to avoid taking up to much calcium it has improved my symptoms of metabolic syndrome and hypoglycemic symptoms despite not being type 2. everytime I lower the dose for maintance to avoid taking to much my symptoms return after about 2 months. any suggestions or thought on this?

  10. Angie says:

    So, I read in the Permaculture Activist that you can get highly significant Vitamin D by sun-bathing the mushrooms you plan to eat. Would this be considered plant-based Vit. D 2 (well, is fungi really a plant?) or is this sun-based, and the vitamin D3 sulfate we want? Wouldn’t that be a win-win?

  11. […] out this awesome article Mommypotamus wrote about Vitamin D supplements and why she believes they are useless.  I do not agree with that […]

  12. Carmen says:

    Question: I have been taking fermented cod liver oil for years now but I test very low vit D levels? I started to take the butter oil with it several months ago, and still the same results! My son also has low vit D levels, and he has been on fermented cod liver oil for years as well. Any ideas?

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