Vitamin D: The Pain-in-the-Butt Micronutrient

magic-mushroomsNutrients don’t get much more annoying than Vitamin D. For starters, we don’t get enough of it. According to some research, the deficiency rate has as much as tripled in recent years. And one particularly harrowing article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition goes so far as to call vitamin D deficiency a “pandemic.”  

(A pandemic is an epidemic on steroids, in case you’re wondering. An epidemic hits a specific geographic location while pandemics go worldwide, baby.)

Vitamin D plays a few roles in your body, the most Oscar-worthy being how it aids mineral absorption, specifically when it comes to bones. Surely you’ve heard that old chestnut, “You need calcium to make your bones strong,” but the truth is that calcium couldn’t do squat without vitamin D. I believe it was Dr. Bette Midler who famously said, “Vitamin D is the wind beneath calcium’s wings.”

Vitamin D also helps with muscle function, has anti-tumor properties, and lowers your risk of heart disease. The recommended daily allowance is 400 IU for infants, 800 IU for people over 70, and 600 IU for everyone in between. Holistic practitioners, however, tend to recommend 1,000 IU for most folks, 2,000 IU if you have osteoporosis, high blood pressure, or some other heart-related issue.  

There are two really weird things about vitamin D. Weird Vitamin D thing #1 is that that you don’t theoretically need to eat the stuff because your skin absorbs it from the sun. But in practice, this idea tends to fall apart. If you live too far away from the equator, it’s almost impossible to get enough UV rays for this to work, especially in winter. And if you have dark skin, the problem gets even worse because you don’t absorb it. (Interesting factoid: darker-skinned black people have a built in SPF of 15.) 

If you have fair skin and live close to the equator, then you need to be outside for 10 minutes in the midday sun clad, at most, in a t-shirt and shorts (no hat, no sunblock)  to get a healthy 10,000 IU of D. (Vitamin D is fat-based, so your body can store it, unlike water-based vitamins.)

But, frankly, this practice seems kind of silly. If you go to all that trouble, you’re not going to stand out there for just ten minutes. You’d look dopey. You’re probably going to make an afternoon of it–and then you need to throw on a hat and add sunblock into the mix because nobody wins with a melanoma. In warding off cancer, you’ve defeated your initial vitamin D-soaking purpose.

Luckily, you can also get vitamin D from foods, including fatty fish, cow liver, egg yolks, and fortified dairy… what’s that you say? You’re a vegan?!? Yet another problem. Vitamin D, like vitamin B12, is one of those pretty-much-animal-product-only nutrients that forces you meat-free types to add supplements to your diet.

Or is it? There’s nothing wrong with supplementing, but as far as I’m concerned, the most nutrition you can get from real foods, the better. This brings us to  weird Vitamin D Thing #2. Mushrooms absorb it from the sun the same way we do. Groovy, huh? Place a bunch of them–any type will do–gills up for a few hours in peak sun and you’re set. Two cupped hands worth of fresh mushrooms (about 100g) left outside for 8 hours will soak up 46,000 IU of D. This hippie-tastique blog post from Paul Stamets goes into much more detail

Some wisenheimers might point out that mushrooms generate vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), the less retainable cousin of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), which is the form of vitamin D we get from the sun and animal products. Nonsense. This is old science. The latest research shows that mushrooms do contain some D3. But even if, my advice to relax. You’re not going to get rickets because you’re using a slightly inferior form of a vitamin. At least you’re getting some–and using mushrooms as a vehicle is great because you get all the other benefits of eating fungi.

In a perfect world, we’d all bask in the sun all day as we feasted on salmon and mackerel omelets. Then we’d industrialize the seafood industry to get more fish, which would deplete our oceans and tear a big hole in the ozone… Oh wait, we already did that.

You get your vitamin D however you want. I’m going to eat my mushrooms.