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Best Vegan Vitamin D Sources,
And Why We Need It

The original natural source of vegan vitamin D was sunlight. Vitamin D is not really a vitamin at all, but a prohormone that we make from the action of sunlight on our skin. We later convert it to an active hormone.  Our species evolved in equatorial Africa. Our ancestors wore little or no clothing. Early humans got plenty of sun and they produced plenty of vitamin D.

Today our lives are different.

We spend most of our time inside our home, car, and workplace.

Dermatologists warn us to use sunscreen every time we go out in the sun.

They say that if we don't, we will develop skin cancer.

But sunscreen blocks the rays that enable us to make vitamin D.

Scientists say a majority of people are now vitamin D deficient.

Vitamin D deficiency symptoms

For many years, doctors have known that vitamin D deficiency causes the bone disease called rickets. Children who never went out in the sun were at risk for rickets. Adults developed a similar bone condition called osteomalacia.

However, many recent studies show that vitamin D is important for other reasons. And the blood levels that are enough to protect us from rickets or osteomalacia still leave us vulnerable to other diseases.

Lower levels of vitamin D are linked with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, chronic pain, and more than 100 other conditions. Adequate vitamin D levels correlate with a 60% lower risk of major cancers. (No, that is not a typo.) Vitamin D helps us destroy viruses. Sub-optimal levels of vitamin D during the winter make us more susceptible to cold and flu viruses.

Vitamin D requirements

The US Daily Value for vitamin D intake is 400 IU per day. However, the Institute of Medicine recommends 600 IU per day, and 800 IU for people age 70 and up. The elderly need more vitamin D than others, because we do not convert sunlight to vitamin D as efficiently as we age. Other people have different needs too.

For example, if you are overweight or obese, you probably have low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is stored in body fat. The more body fat you have, the more vitamin D you store. This leaves less vitamin D available in the bloodstream for your body to use. Until you reach your ideal weight, you will need more vitamin D than a normal weight person.

People of color, especially blacks, need much more sun than whites to produce adequate levels of vitamin D. The pigment in colored skin blocks many of the UVB rays. Black skin evolved near the equator where sun was plentiful. Blacks who choose to live in cold regions are often vitamin D deficient. This may explain many health problems.

Clearly, people vary in the amount of sun they get and in their personal needs. The best way to determine our vitamin D status is to test our blood.

Ideal blood levels of vitamin D

A group of thirty vitamin D researchers agrees that for optimum health, we should maintain a level of serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D (calcidiol) of at least 40 ng/ml (100 nmol/L). Between 50 and 70 ng/ml is best (125 - 175 nmol/L). If you have your blood tested, be sure to test for 25(OH)D. Do not test for 1,25(OH)2 D, as it will not give you an accurate result.

If your blood levels are low, you can raise them in a few different ways. The best way to raise D levels is with sunlight.

Sunlight: a natural vegan vitamin D source

The rays that produce healthy, free, vegan vitamin D are the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. They are most prevalent at noon (1:00 pm daylight savings time). To maximize vitamin D production:
  • Sunbathe nude or in a swim suit.
  • Do not use sunscreen.

  • Most importantly, do not burn. Begin with just a few minutes and work up to 15 or 20 minutes on a side.

To prevent getting wrinkles on your face, wear a hat or cover your face with a scarf. The rest of your body can soak up the vegan vitamin D.

Caucasians who live below 34 degrees north latitude (Los Angeles) or above 34 degrees south latitude (Adelaide), can get enough UVB from the sun all year long. In colder regions, there is a "vitamin D winter" for a few months (or longer) when the sun is at the wrong angle to stimulate D production. One fun way to solve this problem is to vacation in Hawaii. :-)

Some researchers suggest using a tanning bed during the winter. The tanning bed you choose must produce 3 to 5% UVB rays, or 290-315 nm UVB. The remaining 95% to 97% will be UVA, which does not cause D production. As with sunbathing, do not use sunscreen, and be careful not to burn. Newer tanning beds are more powerful than the older ones.

If you are concerned about skin cancer, see our discussion at the bottom of the page.

If you can't get enough sun and prefer not to use a tanning bed, you may want to take a vegan vitamin D supplement.

Vegan vitamin D supplements

There are two types of vitamin D supplements.
  • Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is the type of vitamin D that our bodies make when exposed to the sun. D3 supplements are not vegan. They are made from from rendered sheep fat or fish livers. Cow's milk and margarine are usually fortified with vitamin D3.

  • Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is a vegan vitamin D made from yeast. Soy milk is often fortified with vitamin D2.
Some studies show that it takes three times as much D2 to raise our D levels as it does D3. And D2 is depleted in just a few days, while D3 lasts for weeks. At one time, researchers were also concerned that vitamin D2 was synthetic (not natural) and might form harmful byproducts.

However, most vegan dietitians now agree that vitamin D2 is safe and effective in raising blood levels of vitamin D. People who are vitamin D deficient usually take more than the RDA of D2, often 1000 - 2000 IU per day.

Vegans who prefer not to sunbathe or take pills have another option: get your vegan vitamin D from food. Check the labels of your soy milk and other vegan products for added D2. What if you find that the quantities of D2 in your vegan products are not enough? There is an exciting new option: mushrooms!

Vegan vitamin D foods: mushrooms

When some mushrooms are exposed to UV light, they can actually produce vitamin D2. Some companies now treat mushrooms this way. One company is Monterey Mushrooms. Dole also sells light-treated portobello mushrooms. Only 2/3 cup of their fresh portobellos contains 400 IU of vitamin D2. Do they work? The research says yes.

In one study, people got 28,000 IU vitamin D2 once a week for 4 weeks. One group got their D2 from supplements and a second group from light- treated mushrooms.

At the end of the study, people taking the supplements raised their average blood levels of D from 29 to 58 nmol/l. Those eating mushrooms raised theirs from 34 to 57 nmol/l. In the placebo group, blood levels of D decreased.

We have heard that the Dole Nutrition Institute also sells a convenient Portobello Mushroom Powder that contains 600 IU of vegan vitamin D in just a teaspoon of powder. We haven't tried it, but people say it tastes great and is easy to use. You can put it in soups, stews, casseroles, sauces, and dressings. One woman puts it in her desserts and loves the taste. She says it tastes like chocolate.......?

While researching this article, we learned some interesting facts about sunlight exposure and skin cancer.

What about skin cancer?

Many people fear that sunbathing unprotected will cause skin cancer. The risk of non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) is very low in people who eat a low fat diet with a high intake of phytonutrients. As a healthy vegan, your diet should be rich in colorful fruits and vegetables. You can also reduce your risk of NMSC by getting adequate omega 3 fats in your diet.

Melanoma, the deadly form of skin cancer, is not linked with small amounts of unprotected sun exposure. It is linked with sunburn and with sunscreen use! Suntan lotion that blocks UVB still lets UVA through to the deeper layers of the skin. You might not burn on the surface of the skin, but the UVA rays are still causing damage that can lead to melanoma.

High vitamin D levels are linked with lower rates of melanoma and of serious internal cancers. You can dramatically lower your risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, and many other cancers by keeping your vitamin D levels high.

On a lighter note, vitamin D probably helps to control weight. Obesity rates are lower in regions near the equator where sun is plentiful and vitamin D levels are high. And in lab experiments, activated vitamin D inhibits the production of fat and fat cells. Isn't it great that sunlight, the best source of vegan vitamin D, can help with weight loss too?

If all of these claims about vitamin D are hard for you to believe, we suggest you read "Vitamin D3 and Solar Power for Optimum Health" by Marc Sorenson, EdD. It is an excellent summary of the current research, with 37 pages of references from the medical literature.

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