Vegan Vitamin D: The Full Lowdown On The Sunlight Vitamin

Did you know that you, as a human being, are kind of like a sunflower? Most plants create their food and energy from photosynthesis, the process by which they turn sunlight into chlorophyll (the green stuff in their leaves).

Chlorophyll is basically trapped sunlight! The human body also uses the sun to create vital nutrients for energy use. One of these vitamins is vitamin D. Proper vitamin D intake is essential for bone health and can reduce or prevent the onset of the bone disease osteoporosis. Vitamin D promotes bone formation by helping the body use calcium and phosphorus.

Recent studies have shown that proper supplementation with vitamin D reduces and reverses bone loss, so there‘s great hope for osteoporosis sufferers.

As an ex–milk drinker, you probably remember seeing cow’s milk cartons exclaiming that the product was “Vitamin D fortified!” This supplementation was necessary to stave off the rampant spread of rickets, a vitamin D deficiency, across the United States in the early 20th century. Because of this (and the “Got milk?” campaigns), most of us strongly link bone health with cow‘s milk.

Vitamin D also is essential for a healthy immune system and for improved cardiovascular, skin, and prostate health. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that‘s stored in the liver, and it can be used by the body during the dark winter. (Just don‘t beat up your liver with alcohol; otherwise it can‘t properly dispense the D you need.)

But is vitamin D a nutrient?

Not exactly, since we can make all we need when our skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays from sunlight. In fact, for most of human history, this is where people got their vitamin D since it occurs naturally in very few foods. But as people moved away from the equatorial zones and began to spend more time indoors, vitamin D deficiency became a problem. In the early 1900s, rickets (soft bones that don’t develop well in children) was a significant public health problem that led to fortification of cow’s milk with vitamin D.

While the focus has long been on bone health, more recent research suggests that suboptimal vitamin D levels are linked to fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, depression, muscle weakness, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. The current AI for vitamin D in adults is 600 IUs (vitamin D is also measured in micrograms; 1 microgram equals 40 IUs). But many experts believe that it may take as much as 1,000 Ius or 25 micrograms to maintain ideal blood levels of vitamin D.17 While this continues to be a controversial area, we favor the higher recommendation.

Dietary Sources of Vitamin D for Vegans

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The only significant, natural sources of vitamin D in foods are fatty fish, eggs from chickens who have been fed vitamin D, and mushrooms treated with ultraviolet rays. Many people think that milk is a good natural source of vitamin D, but it isn’t. Milk contains no vitamin D unless it has been fortified and is no more natural a source of this vitamin than any other fortified food.

There are two types of vitamin D used in fortified foods and supplements. Vitamin D3 or  cholecalciferol is derived from animals, usually from sheep’s wool or fish oil. Vitamin D2 or ergocalciferol is usually obtained from yeast and is vegan. The evidence suggests that the two types are absorbed equally as well but that blood levels of vitamin D2 decline more quickly when megadoses of the vitamin are consumed. At the smaller dose that we recommend—1,000 milligrams per day—vitamin D2 appears to be as effective as vitamin D3.

Getting Enough Vitamin D for Optimal Health

Concern about skin cancer has people using powerful sunscreen or shying away from sun exposure altogether. However, in addition to blocking the harmful effects of the UV light on the skin, sunscreen blocks vitamin D synthesis. And there are plenty of other factors that affect vitamin D synthesis in the skin. Older people need longer exposure and so do people with dark skin. Smog can interfere with vitamin D synthesis and the farther away you are from the equator, the more sun exposure you need to make vitamin D. Some research suggests that Americans living in the northern part of the country do not make any vitamin D during the winter months.

To make adequate vitamin D for one day, a light-skinned person needs ten to fifteen minutes of midday (10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) sun exposure, without sunscreen, on a day when sunburn is possible. 21 Dark-skinned people need twenty minutes and older people need thirty minutes.22,23

If your sun exposure doesn’t match these guidelines, then you need to take a supplement or use fortified foods.

We recommend 25 micrograms (1,000 IU) per day of vitamin D2.

Many foods, including most breakfast cereals, are fortified with vitamin D. Almost all use vitamin D3, which is derived from animals. Most brands of fortified soymilk and other nondairy milks use vitamin D2, which comes from yeast exposed to UV rays.

For food labeling purposes, the Daily Value for vitamin D is 10 micrograms (400 IU). So if a food provides 25 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin D, it contains 2.5 micrograms (100 IU) of vitamin D per serving. Vitamin D–fortified soy, almond, hemp, or rice milk normally has 2 to 3 micrograms (80 to 120 IU) per cup. You can see from these numbers that it’s not that easy to meet the recommended 1,000 IU per day from fortified foods. If your sun exposure isn’t adequate, you will probably need to use a vitamin D supplement. Most natural foods stores carry supplements of plant-derived vitamin D2, or you can order one from the online sources in the resource section of this book.

Bone Health: More than Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D have well-deserved reputations as bone-strengthening nutrients, but they don’t act alone. The following are all important forpro tecting bone health.

  • Stay physically active. Exercise is absolutely crucial to bone density and strength; it’s probably the single most important factor in preventing bone loss. Choose weight-bearing and high-impact exercise to get the greatest benefit, such as weight-lifting, jogging, and step aerobics. Biking and swimming are not especially valuable to strengthening bones.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and by this, we mean don’t let your weight get too low. When it comes to bone health, being a few pounds above your ideal weight is better than being a few pounds below it. Rapid weight loss is associated with bone loss, so if you have some pounds toshed, aim for a slow reduction while building more muscle and protecting bones through exercise.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables because they keep the blood more alkaline. In fact, some researchers have suggested that the best diet for maintaining healthy bones is one that is rich in calcium, contains plenty of protein to boost calcium absorption, and is generous in fruits and vegetables to keep the blood alkaline. But fruits and vegetables also provide nutrients that are good for bones, such as vitamin K and the minerals boron, potassium, and magnesium. Vitamin C also plays a role in bone formation and high vitamin C intake has been linked to better bone health. Plant foods are the best sources of vitamin K and potassium, and they are the only sources of vitamin C.
  • Avoid excess sodium, which is linked to calcium losses. Lightly salting your food is fine, but an overdependence on processed foods can make vegan diets too high in sodium.

Building Healthy Bones on a Vegan Diet

Building and keeping strong bones depends on a number of lifestyle factors. They are all important.

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