Don’t let the name fool you–Vitamin D is not your ordinary vitamin. Termed the sunshine vitamin for the human body’s incredible capacity to create it upon direct exposure to ultraviolet rays, Vitamin D is a powerful hormone that has a receptor in nearly every human cell. Vitamin D is involved in highly complex bodily processes from wound healing to calcium regulation to hormonal balance (study). In the scientific literature, low Vitamin D levels have been associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, heart disease, hypertension, bone fractures, depressive symptoms, autoimmune diseases, and a number of chronic conditions (link). Vitamin D status has also been positively correlated with wound healing and circulating testosterone levels in men, impacting athletic performance in a major way. Science is in agreement that optimizing Vitamin D levels is one of the most sensible health choices any human being can make.
I favor the Vitamin D Council’s recommendation of aiming for about 50 ng/ml of Vitamin D. Unfortunately, a high number of Americans (and people all around the world) are Vitamin D-deficient due to lifestyle and seasonal changes. Take the American Midwest, for example. During the summer months the body can generate Vitamin D from about 9 AM to 6 PM, with peak production taking place from 11 to 3 PM when ultraviolet radiation is elevated. Since most Americans work during this time, they generate very little, if any, Vitamin D naturally from the sun. During the winter months where I live, no Vitamin D production is possible. Natural and lifestyle factors have contributed to a Vitamin D deficiency epidemic.
I am of the belief that there is no better substitute than direct sunlight exposure for optimizing Vitamin D. Our species evolved over thousands of years to harness life-giving energy from the sun, and we do not know for certain whether something is lost in the process of supplementation. With that said, due to work schedules, winter weather, and health concerns over skin damage induced by sun exposure, supplementation can be an excellent alternative. Oral Vitamin D supplementation is the traditional route, but recent studies demonstrate that topical delivery (applying Vitamin D on the skin) is also effective at raising Vitamin D levels in the blood (study).
The first thing you want to do is get blood work done at your clinic in order to diagnose your current Vitamin D levels (easy to get done and almost always covered by insurance). For Vitamin D-deficient patients, your doctor will usually prescribe either Vitamin D3 50,000 or Vitamin D3 100,000 IU to be taken orally once per week. Your doctor may also advise you to purchase smaller doses of Vitamin D3 over-the-counter and supplement more regularly.
My preferred method of optimizing Vitamin D levels is with a Vitamin D3 transdermal cream. This method best resembles the way our bodies are naturally designed to generate Vitamin D. I take the same dose I would normally ingest orally and rub it on my skin using a lotion or cream applicator. I personally like to cut open my Vitamin D3 softgels with a toothpick. I’ve found this method to be much more cost-efficient method than purchasing Vitamin D3 topical from a retailer. My favorite Vitamin D3 supplement in softgel form is NatureWise Vitamin D3 5,000 IU. I get the most bang for my buck using the higher 5,000 IU dosage and the company is large enough to sell the product for a low price. When applying Vitamin D3 from the softgel directly to the skin, you want to use a cream or lotion carrier so that you can easily spread it on your skin. My favorite product for this purpose is Viva Naturals Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil. You want to use enough carrier cream so that you can evenly apply the product imitating how the body naturally produces Vitamin D from sunlight. If you do not want to mix your own Vitamin D3 cream, Vitamin D3 pre-mixed and ready for direct transdermal application is available on Amazon. The only topical Vitamin D I have ever purchased is AnuMed Vitamin D3 Cream 10,000 IU. It works as advertised and requires no preparation, but I personally enjoy mixing the Vitamin D3 and the cost savings of doing it myself.
Two pro tips for topical Vitamin D delivery.
1. Apply Vitamin D Topical in the Morning or Early Afternoon
Vitamin D generation signals to our body that the sun is out. Circulating levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep, decreases during the daylight hours. You want to apply the cream early in the day to give your body time to absorb the Vitamin D and so it doesn’t interfere with your sleep quality.
2. Apply Vitamin D Topical After the Shower
Studies evidence that Vitamin D precursors can be washed off due to water/soap exposure (See Helmer AC, Jensen CH: Vitamin D precursors removed from the skin by washing. Studies Inst Divi Thomae 1937, 1:207-216). Since Vitamin D on the skin can take more than a day to fully metabolize, it is best to apply it after the shower to give the body maximize time for absorption prior to the next administration.
Ancient religions worshiped the sun, modern countries wear it on their flag, and contemporary science evidences how critical the sun is to human health and well-being. The recent capacity of scientists to extract Vitamin D3 from plants and animals has made it possible to enjoy many of the health benefits of the sun without direct sun exposure. It stands to reason that everyone should get their Vitamin D levels clinically evaluated and assess whether supplementation can be a meaningful step toward better health.