Everybody always tells me that I have great skin. I attribute it to taking good care of myself. I don’t smoke or drink, and I cleanse, tone and moisturize with abandon. It’s also in the genes. My mother Emily, one of the great beauties of her time, had skin so amazing that Estee Lauder herself, a family friend, showed up in Havana on her honeymoon with my father, The Judge, so she could test her creams on Emily’s skin in the sun. (True story! I even chronicled this in a profile I once wrote on Estee for Town & Country magazine.) But my mother and I also had a secret that I continue to adhere to this very day: Taking a tablespoon of pure cod liver oil as soon as I wake up in the morning. “Ewww,” you say, as if I added that I washed down the taste with a side of octopus juice, straight-up. It’s really not so bad, truth be told. And what price perfect skin? Furthermore, given that baking in direct sunlight to produce our body’s natural allotment of Vitamin D is now a big no no, by any measure, cod liver oil—a natural source of Vitamin D—is certainly far better than melanoma.
Overall, Vitamin D plays many essential roles for our health. It helps our cells grow and our bones stay strong by absorbing enough calcium. It is also a key nutrient to ensure that our muscles and nerves function properly. And it reduces inflammation, which we now know is important for our immune systems to prevent and ward off chronic illness.
Yet today, with all the emphasis on not sitting out in the sun, some experts believe that as many as three out of four people in the U.S. are Vitamin D deficient. So unlike gluten, “D” has now become the do eat du jour. However, the traditional dietary sources, notably milk products, are difficult to consume in sufficient quantities to satisfy this deficiency by themselves. Enter dietary supplements, usually in the form of Vitamin D3, which help to ensure that we get adequate levels throughout the year. Typically, though, the market has taken advantage of all the hype and is now flooded with all sorts of options and strengths. Big surprise! And as with all things that are supposedly good for us, we tend to overdose. I mean, if a little is good, a lot must be so much better, right? But is there a downside to taking too much? More importantly, though, how do we know that we are deficient to begin with?
I took my queries to Dr. Nancy Steely, Senior Scientist at USANA Health Sciences.
“Many individuals, not only in North America, but Europe, Australia, and Asia Pacific as well, are estimated to be Vitamin D deficient,” she contends. “This holds true even in the summer months when our skin is more often exposed to the sun’s rays.”
Indeed, the International Osteoporosis Foundation has found that Vitamin D levels are not only inadequate, but dangerously low in many population groups around the world. In North America and Europe, approximately 50 percent of individuals are deficient. And in China, 86 percent of Shanghai residents don’t get enough of this bone-friendly vitamin during the winter months.
JWM: Dr. Steely, is taking a Vitamin D supplement enough?
Dr. S: “If you are unable to soak up the sun for long periods of time (due to the risk of skin cancer) or feel you aren’t getting enough Vitamin D from the foods you are eating, you may want to consider taking a supplement.”
Before you do, though, should you ask your doctor to add a test for Vitamin D levels into your next blood workup?
“Yes. If you feel you could be lacking in this nutrient, insist on a Vitamin D level test once or twice a year to get a picture of how much additional supplementation you may need. And don’t be afraid to speak up. Doctors are just now beginning to realize how important this vitamin is for overall health.”
If you don’t like to take pills, which foods are rich in Vitamin D? I know they now add it to milk, for example. Does that count in our daily quota?
“Vitamin D from all sources counts toward our daily intake. And you may think of dairy products as being rich in Vitamin D because they are, as you mentioned, typically fortified, but the Vitamin D content of milk is actually quite low—only about 100 IU per eight ounces. A very good source is cooked salmon, which provides about 400 IU in three ounces. However, the cod liver oil your mother may have insisted you take is one of the very best sources of Vitamin D and can provide about 400 IU/teaspoon.” (See? What did I tell you?)
Does lack of sun in the winter affect our overall health?
“We know lack of sun during the winter months can impact the body’s Vitamin D levels, but it can also affect the immune, skeletal, and cardiovascular systems, and even emotional well-being. That’s why we need Vitamin D—to make sure we have adequate stores to maintain optimal health.”
Let’s talk bones. Should we always include D when we take calcium?
“Most people equate proper levels of calcium with good bone health, but Vitamin D also plays a significant role in maintaining skeletal health by supporting the absorption of calcium and helping maintain the body’s metabolism. Other nutrients, though, including magnesium, boron, manganese, vanadium, and Vitamin K are also important for supporting bone health.”
I have heard that taking too much Vitamin D can have a negative effect. How much should we be taking each day?
“Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient that can build up in the tissues, but it would take a large amount to have such an effect. In fact, many doctors prescribe higher doses—50,000 IU per week—for several months in patients with deficiency issues. However, some individuals may do well with only 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day, while others will need higher levels—6,000 to 7,000 IU per day. Taking such high doses over long periods of time is not recommended, but, as I said, regular monitoring of your Vitamin D status can help to ensure you are staying within an optimal range.”
Or if you happen to fear blood tests as much as I—(Needles!! Hello!!)—just make a point of taking a spoonful of cod liver oil each morning—Carlson’s, bottled in Norway—and that’s a great start.