Humans have a weird relationship with the sun. On the one hand, it gives us life on Earth. On the other, it kills us. Our bodies demand the sun’s nutrients in the form of vitamin D from its ultraviolet rays, but our largest organ will also burn to a painful shade of pink and later grow cancer. Like, damn bitch, make up your mind.
Damage from the sun is so serious, most people just throw their consideration for vitamin D in the trash. People are even recommending that you wear sunscreen while indoors, during the quarantine. I get that they’re doctors who have probably triple the education and experience than me… but does this mean they’re right?!?! (Yes.)
In any case, my question is, how much am I supposed to think about my vitamin D levels?
As it turns out, around 41 percent of the American population is deficient in vitamin D. There is a significant correlation between race and region in the deficiency, too –– people with darker skin tones are less able to generate vitamin D from the sun, and it’s even more challenging to produce vitamin D in areas with less year-round sun. This has dramatic implications for public health and inequality. “Deficiency [in vitamin D] can cause fatigue, muscle aches, migraines, thinning hair, poor immunity and low bone density,” says Arielle Levitan, an internist and co-founder of Vous Vitamins. “There is research suggesting associations between low vitamin D and depression, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”
In one nationwide study from Harvard Medical School, vitamin D supplementation reduced cancer risk among Black participants by 23 percent. There is also evidence to suggest a link between populations with low vitamin D and COVID-19 deaths, which in the U.S. has disproportionately impacted Black communities.
Universally, though, getting the right amount of vitamin D is still a problem, and one we shouldn’t look to the sun to solve. Even if you’re trying to play it safe by sitting in the sunlight shining through your window in your apartment, you’re not going to get the right rays you need to produce vitamin D. You’ll still be exposed to the bad rays, though, which is fucking stupid.
Of course, you can take yourself for a stroll, but there’s that aforementioned cancer risk there, as well. Plus, you’re probably just not very good at it. “It’s very hard to get enough vitamin D from the sun,” says Levitan. “One needs regular daily exposure to large areas of unprotected skin. This, of course, puts you at risk for skin cancer and sun-damaged skin.” On top of those racial and regional inequalities, our bodies become less able to absorb vitamin D as we get older, too, says Levitan.
Fortunately, vitamin D supplements are actually decently effective. Because unlike many of those other pesky nutrients we need to survive, vitamin D isn’t all that easy to obtain through diet alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Very few foods in nature contain vitamin D. The flesh of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna and mackerel) and fish liver oils are among the best sources. Small amounts of vitamin D are found in beef liver, cheese and egg yolks.”
Basically, unless you’re eating salmon every damn day, you’re not likely to get it naturally. This is why dairy milk and cereals are often fortified with vitamin D, but even then, you need to eat multiple servings to reach the daily recommended amount.
So, yes, it’s fine to just take a pill for this one.
“Most people can absorb vitamin D in the pill form adequately,” says Levitan. “Very rarely, people with certain GI conditions absorb it poorly. Sometimes people with conditions such as Crohn’s, celiac or after gastric bypass surgery need higher doses. The amount of D needed varies from person to person. Most people need between 800 and 2,000 IU daily of vitamin D3.”
Vitamin D can become toxic in high doses, but requires chronic doses in the tens of thousands of IUs to do so. “Taking too much D can cause great harm. It’s a fat-soluble vitamin and can build up in your system to cause toxic effects including constipation, kidney stones and altered cognition, which in extreme cases can lead to coma,” says Levitan.
But considering that it’s highly unlikely you’re gonna hurt yourself by taking a vitamin D pill — and that vitamin D works just fine and well in supplement form — you, unfortunately, have one less excuse to go outside. If you do, you’re supposed to wear sunscreen anyways, goddamnit.