Fuck Supplements: The Vitamin D edition

February 12th, 2011  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  13 Comments

From Scientific American:

“Physicians have recommended vitamin D supplements to their patients for a decade, with good reason: dozens of studies have shown a correlation between high intake of vitamin D—far higher than most people would get in a typical diet and from exposure to the sun—and lower rates of chronic diseases, such as cancer and type 1 diabetes. So when the Institute of Medicine, which advises the government on health policy, concluded in November that vitamin D supplements were unnecessary for most Americans and potentially harmful, patients were understandably confused.”

Here’s a link to the IOM’s study.

As always I think the larger issues around supplementation are:

  • How did we evolve to get these nutrients naturally?
  • Are we getting the correct molecular form of these nutrients? Most “vitamins” are actually large families of nutrient molecules, not a single thing.
  • Are we adequately absorbing and using these nutrients — again, the way nature intended?
  • Where did the supplements come from? Supplements are often synthesized from things like coal tar. We’re not just shrinking a head of kale into a capsule here. Make no mistake: Supplements are generally products of industrial chemistry.

Vitamin D is a particularly interesting debate, as it is a substance that is not widely available in food. We evolved to get the bulk of D from the sun, not food. Vitamin D status has been shown to be an important factor in chronic disease. Many of us live in climates where there is not year-round optimal sun.

It’s a conundrum. So what to do?

Well, first, the question is: How did prehistoric peoples in northern climes get vitamin D?

Second, where does the modern D deficiency really come from?

If you think about modern food intakes and life, could it be that other factors in our diet are hampering our absorption? Could our mole-like cubicle existence be problematic?

Is supplementation, in short, taking an Advil for the headache while we continue to whack ourselves in the skull with a hammer?


  1. Dineen says:

    February 12th, 2011at 11:06 am(#)

    I believe the peoples you are wondering about got their Vitamin D from eating organ meats. Only recently have we gotten out of the habit of eating beef liver and keeping cod liver oil on hand as a regular food supplement that was more a tonic than “a vitamin”.

    I can recall reading an article at a site touting the virtues of their particular cod liver oil described Northern European historically keeping barrels of the fish livers fermenting for the valuable resource.

    The value of fish oil seems to permeate history though. I also recall that there is an ancient (Roman) condiment made from fermented/pickled oily fish that created a valuable market trade in the Classical world. Perhaps such things are embedded in the human psyche? That we crave the nutrients we need and they end up having a high value?

  2. Kathy says:

    February 12th, 2011at 12:54 pm(#)

    From long winters in Norway: cod liver oil. As I understand it’s been made for ages from a process of fermenting cod livers (which sounds reasonably natural if somewhat gross). I started on a tablespoon a day and then lost the tablespoon. Slurping a spoonful or so from the bottle keeps it from getting all over the place. A glass of skim milk makes a good chaser and that’s first breakfast for me. (Second is a cottage cheese, fruit, milk, and flax seed smoothie when I get to work. I got the cottage cheese habit from you.) Cod liver oil really seems to help me with winter blahs. Some say that’s SAD, but I wonder if it isn’t just plain old vitamin D shortage at least for some of us.

  3. Neil says:

    February 12th, 2011at 1:01 pm(#)

    This is particularly topical for me although not from the viewpoint of supplementation. (I take no supplements.)
    The results of my annual fasting blood test have just been read to me by phone.
    “Your vitamin D level is low.”
    I didn’t ask him what level. Will have another blood test next month. Can’t recall my Vitamin D having been checked previously.
    Vitamin D? Sunlight? Low in an Australian? An Australian who removes his shirt when mowing the lawn every couple of weeks between Spring and Autumn? (To expose one’s skin to sunlight is regarded here as bordering on criminal given our high incidence of skin cancer.)
    I’m confused about my situation and confused by the remark by the IOM that “evidence supports a role for vitamin D and calcium in bone health but not in other health conditions.”
    Such a view seems a little careless or bold in the context of the association between low levels of Vitamin D and Parkinson’s disease, my personal area of interest.


  4. Mistress Krista says:

    February 12th, 2011at 2:04 pm(#)

    @Neil: You could have some problem of adequate absorption, perhaps correlated to PD or one of the medications involved. Interesting situation though.

  5. psi*psi says:

    February 12th, 2011at 4:33 pm(#)

    You make a number of good points, but:
    Where did the supplements come from? Supplements are often synthesized from things like coal tar. We’re not just shrinking a head of kale into a capsule here. Make no mistake: Supplements are generally products of industrial chemistry.

    Look around you. Most things in your household, your car, your shampoo/soap, the building materials for your house, your clothing and the dyes that color it, every medication you take: these are ALL products of industrial chemistry. And the feedstocks for these things tend to be petroleum or coal tar, just because they’re convenient building blocks since the C-C bonds are already there. Fact is, we chemists are pretty good at cleaning up our reactions and we can generally purify most products quite well.

    Please save the chemophobia for the real terrors in our world (dioxins, mercury and other heavy metals, organophosphates).

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    February 12th, 2011at 4:35 pm(#)

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  7. Crystal says:

    February 12th, 2011at 7:57 pm(#)

    I was going through a lot of low-level depression a year or two ago and in a routine checkup (in which I didn’t mention my funk to my doctor) she told me my vitamin D levels were really low and said to start taking supplements. Being in Boston, this made sense because we just don’t get much light in the winter.

    So I started taking the supplements and not only did the depression completely disappear but it also helped my cold-induced asthma (in the winter I get terrible coughing bouts going in and out of cold temps). And I get sick far less than I used to!

    Maybe there are other factors involved but I don’t know…one small change made a massive difference to me. I take 2,000 IUs a day and swear by it.

  8. Sarah says:

    February 13th, 2011at 3:54 pm(#)

    I recall reading something that I think Chris Masterjohn at WAPF wrote a while ago (maybe???) about the difference in skin resistance to sun exposure depending on the types of fats consumed…too many PUFAs = more burning, more sat fat = less burning. Is it possible that the problems we’ve seen with skin cancer related to sun exposure are actually a product of diet, people eating less saturated fat and more vegetable oil, resulting in a lower tolerance of sun exposure, leading to more covering up & SPF 75 etc., leading to vitamin D deficiencies? I have no evidence to back this up, but it sounds plausible and worth looking into.

  9. Sedonia says:

    February 16th, 2011at 8:32 am(#)

    “Well, first, the question is: How did prehistoric peoples in northern climes get vitamin D?”

    As an evolutionary biologist, I think you are on the right track asking such questions, but there are a couple of important concepts to keep in mind. First is not to assume we are perfectly adapted to our present or even past environments. Second, natural selection only acts to increase fitness in an evolutionary sense (getting our genes into the next generation) and not longevity or quality of life, which are often our objectives today. Third, natural selection moves a population towards a local optimum, not a global one.

    So in other words, the answer to the above question might be “they didn’t” or at least “they didn’t get enough”. Northern Europeans (and people elsewhere as well) may have survived under conditions of chronic deficiencies of vitamin D.

    Sometimes (many times? most of the time?) nature does not provide a perfect solution, only a passable solution.

  10. Mistress Krista says:

    February 16th, 2011at 8:43 am(#)

    @Sedonia: Excellent insight — thanks for sharing it!

  11. philosophotarian says:

    February 17th, 2011at 11:56 am(#)

    I’ve been wondering the same thing–how is it that vitamin D deficiency is so incredibly widespread? What are we, collectively, doing wrong?

    It should be noted that it becomes more difficult for the body to metabolize vitamin D as we age, which is why a larger proportion of people over 40 are deficient. This can help to explain why our prehistoric ancestors may not have worried (if I may be allowed to anachronistically project a contemporary worry onto ancient people) about vitamin D levels–they didn’t get old enough (as a group) to become as deficient. But that can only be part of the problem.

  12. Mistress Krista says:

    February 17th, 2011at 12:43 pm(#)

    There is evidence that impaired glucose tolerance and elements of the metabolic syndrome are associated with low vitamin D status. It is not yet clear what the relationship is. However, we could certainly discover that some features of the Western diet, such as high processed sugars, “bad” fats, and/or systemic inflammation inhibit proper absorption and use.

    Additionally, most of us are cubicle monkeys these days.

  13. Blog-watch: Vitamin D again says:

    March 3rd, 2011at 2:01 pm(#)

    […] Krista had a bit of a rant on Stumptuous a few weeks ago about Vitamin D supplementation and raised an interesting point as part of that: by taking supplements are we perhaps avoiding an […]

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