Last Updated on August 7th, 2019
Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin. If you take the popular literature of natural health at face value, it would be easy to conclude that vitamin D is the miracle cure for everything for alopecia to herpes zoster. Every disease condition, some experts would tell you, benefits from vitamin D and the more the better.
The reality is that vitamin D is helpful in some situations, unhelpful in others, and it’s definitely possible to get too much vitamin D. It is extremely helpful in many health conditions1, including acne, which we’ll explain in just a moment. But it is never all you need for any condition and there actually are levels at which vitamin D is toxic.
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Before getting to far into the discussion of vitamin D it is probably helpful to explain the differences between vitamin D1, vitamin D2, and vitamin D3.
Vitamin D1 is the form of the vitamin that occurs in mushrooms, earthworms, and algae. It is a mixture of the chemicals lumisterol and ergocalciferol. These less-complicated life forms can refine vitamin D1 into more or less pure ergocalciferol, which is the chemical known as vitamin D2. This is also the chemical that you get in high-dose vitamin D in the United States.
The human body can use vitamin D2, but it makes yet another chemical, cholecalciferol, which is known as vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 is the form of vitamin D ready-made for use in the body. And the human body makes vitamin D3 out of cholesterol. If you don’t have enough cholesterol, your body can’t make enough vitamin D3.
Cholesterol is essential for the health2 of absolutely every cell in the human body. Cells use cholesterol in the process making the outer membrane that prevents their dissolving into the watery plasma of the bloodstream. The basal cell layer of the skin, which generates new skin, converts cholesterol into 7-dehydrocholesterol. When UV-B rays of sunlight (which are the same rays that cause skin cancer) fall on 7-dehydrocholesterol, the skin converts it into “pre-vitamin D3.”
This pre-vitamin becomes actual vitamin D3 after it is attached to a carrier protein and sent to the liver. The liver assembles chunks of the vitamin D3 molecule from the molecules of the pre-vitamin and sends them all over the body on another carrier molecule. Some of the pre-vitamin D3 made in the skin returns to the skin.
Ironically, UV light stimulates the production of vitamin D in the skin and vitamin D returning to the skin from the liver protects the skin from cancer development. Vitamin D helps regulate the process through which skin cells multiply and slows down the growth of skin cancer long enough for the immune system to keep it in check, plus it can also help fight skin infection3.
Vitamin D activates a kind of white blood cells known as the macrophages. These white blood cells are unusually large cells that are so large that they sometimes have multiple nuclei with multiple copies of the DNA needed to code the proteins that keep the cell going. They crawl along the walls of blood vessels, patrolling for dead cells, excessive cholesterol, and infectious microorganisms. When they encounter cellular debris4, cholesterol deposits, or germs, they flow around the harmful matter and engulf it, digesting it and transforming it back into nutrients that actually feed the body.
Macrophages are stimulated by vitamin D. In the skin, this means they get “hungrier” for acne bacteria, which they attack directly rather than by sending out inflammatory chemicals. This is a very useful characteristic for fighting acne bacteria. Other white blood cells attempt to kill acne bacteria by generating inflammation. The bacteria can release decoy proteins that cause the inflammation actually to destroy the skin itself. That is what causes the redness and inflammation of pimples. Macrophages activated by vitamin don’t send out inflammatory chemicals. Instead, they attack the bacteria head on and wipe them out without a trace, whether or not the bacteria send out decoy chemicals.
For hundreds of years, folk healers assumed that the sun could “dry out” acne and that more sun was better. Nowadays we know that drying out the skin actually makes acne worse and that excessive exposure to sunlight can cause skin cancer. But if the sun can get you more vitamin D, and vitamin D helps reduce acne, then could tanning still work as long as you keep your skin moisturized?
Unfortunately, the dangers of tanning still outweigh the benefits. Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, with over 9,500 people being diagnosed every single day5. If caught early, it is treatable, but once skin cancer metastasizes, it can be incredibly deadly. Even though you absorb more vitamin D when you aren’t wearing sunscreen, studies show that regular sunscreen use does not lead to insufficient vitamin D levels6. It’s just not worth it to avoid sunscreen for the sake of more vitamin D. After all, there are other ways to get more vitamin D in your life.
Vitamin D supplements are a great option for anyone who thinks their vitamin D may be running a bit low. At least 1000 IU per day but no more than 5000 IU per day of vitamin D3 is useful7. It is possible to take so much vitamin D that your skin becomes sensitive to sun—but that almost never occurs unless someone has been taking 50,000 IU per day for longer than 4 weeks.
You can also get vitamin D from your food, but it’s difficult. Cod liver oil is a great source of vitamin D, but it’s easy to get too much vitamin A from cod liver oil. Never take more than 1 tablespoon (15 ml) per day. Mushrooms and leafy greens contain small amounts of vitamin D, but to get even 1000 IU per day you would need to consume 50 servings of mushrooms or greens like spinach.
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