Vitamin D seems to be today’s panacea for solving all ills. Vitamin D is known to be helpful for bone health, cancer prevention, obesity prevention, blood pressure lowering, immune support and even in preventing heart disease. Many of us are low which puts us at risk for a variety of challenges, so should we all just take vitamin D?
The short answer is, no. We must first ask the question, what is our vitamin D status and then ask why are we deficient? Is it just as simple as our lack of sunshine in the middle of winter? Again, the short answer is no.
Vitamin D, which is actually a bit of a cross between a pre-hormone and a vitamin, requires a series of co-factors in order for it to be appropriately absorbed and utilized in the body. Many of those nutrients are nutrients few of us get enough of, if at all. If we just take vitamin D without its’ cofactors present in the body in sufficient quantities, we set ourselves up for some significant imbalances and new problems. Let’s break it down:
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it needs fat to be absorbed and more specifically it needs cholesterol to be appropriately absorbed. This right here is huge. If you have low cholesterol, it is highly likely you have low vitamin D levels as well. In this day and age with a quest for low cholesterol, we may just be shooting ourselves in the foot.
Cholesterol is an antioxidant your body uses as a natural sunscreen when out in the sun. As you spend time in the sun, the cholesterol in your skin rises closer to both protect your skin and to allow the cholesterol to be converted to vitamin D. If you are wearing sunscreen, these actions do not happen.
In order to best be able to absorb natural vitamin D from our most abundant resource: the sun, we need healthy levels of cholesterol in the body. In fact, cholesterol is so important to your body you will make cholesterol regardless of whether you eat any. However, this job gets left to the liver, and as we all know, the liver is loaded down with many jobs and therefore it is not very efficient at making cholesterol. It is much more efficient for you to attain your cholesterol from foods such as pastured egg yolks, raw cream, butter and coconut oil.
For every Vitamin D receptor on a cell, there are two vitamin A receptors. Vitamin A and D when taken together, protect you from toxicity of either one, indicating that vitamin toxicity has more to do with an imbalance than an excess. Mother Nature, in her inherent wisdom, always pairs these two nutrients together.
Vitamin A and D work synergistically to build and repair bones. Think of them as the gas pedal and the brake pedal in your car, you wouldn’t dream of driving without both systems working properly, and the same is true in your body. Where vitamin D activates osteoblasts, the bone-building cells, vitamin A promotes bone-breakdown removing old or weakened bone tissue and allowing for new bone to be laid down.
There are two ways to incorporate vitamin A in your diet, beta carotene found in carrots and retinol which is mainly found in animal foods. Retinol is the more active form and more easily absorbed and utilized. Beta carotene is actually a pre-cursor and needs to be converted to retinol, and secondly it is only absorbed at a rate of 20-50%. Many common health conditions impair your ability to convert beta carotene to retinol, making it even more difficult to rely on beta carotene for sufficient vitamin A needs.
Vitamin A in the form of retinol is found in highest amounts in liver, cod liver oil, fish eggs and marrow. None of those foods were regular items in my diet either until a few years ago. I get it. With persistence, you can slowly start to incorporate them and remember that a little goes a long way, particularly with liver. In addition to eating these foods from time to time, I currently take both Rosita cod liver oil and dessicated liver capsules daily.
We know that Vitamin D is important for calcium absorption and is often recommended after a diagnosis of osteoporosis or osteopenia, however there is yet another co-factor that is critical. Vitamin K2. Think of vitamin K2 as calcium’s personal chariot to distribute it where it is needed. Without K2, calcium doesn’t have easy access into the bones instead it ends up getting distributed into your arteries, and other soft tissues. A deficiency in vitamin K2 isn’t immediately noted, but over time the bones weaken, the teeth show more cavities and your arteries accumulate more plaque.
If fermented soy is your game, then natto is the best source of vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 is also made in small amounts in the colon, but this is dependent on a healthy gut flora. More often than not, it is necessary to make a conscious attempt to incorporate vitamin K2. Gouda cheese, high vitamin butter oil, pastured eggs (the prized orange yolks found most predominantly in spring and summer) and Jarrow’s MK-7, a supplement I take each day in winter, are great ways to incorporate K2. Double bonus with K2 is the effect it can have on your skin!
Teamwork at its Best:
Vitamin A, D and K2 are a critical triangle of nutrients when discussing calcium absorption, utilization and removal from the body. Vitamin D allows you to absorb calcium from your foods and releases the calcium into your blood stream. Vitamin K2 picks up the calcium from the blood stream and shuttles it to your bones and teeth, while at the same time removing calcium from your arteries and soft tissues. Vitamin A acts as the clean up crew for the unusable calcium that was in your soft tissues and shuttles it out of the body.
Interestingly, each nutrient also acts as a cover for the other. Vitamin A (retinol) allows you to get by on less K2, a minimum amount of vitamin A minimizes the possibility of a vitamin D toxicity and a minimum amount of D turns off the toxicity of vitamin A.
There is no nutrient in our body that acts in isolation and vitamin D is no exception. In this blog I focused mainly on how these nutrients interact with calcium, but as Vitamin D is critical to our overall bodily chemistry, its teammates A and K2 also have wide-ranging, critical roles in the body. Test don’t guess and strive to find a balance between vitamin A, D and K2.
Campbell-McBride, N. (2010). Put Your Heart in Your Mouth. Cambridge: Medinform Publishing.
Gedgaudas, N.T. (2009). Primal Body, Primal Mind. Vermont: Healing Arts Press
Holick, M.F. (2010). The Vitamin D Solution. New York: Penguin Group.
Rheaume-Bleue, K. (2012). Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox. Toronto, Canada: Harper Collins.
Masterjohn, C. “Vitamin D is Synthesized From Cholesterol and Found in Cholesterol-Rich Foods.” Cholesterol And Health. 1/21/16. http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/Vitamin-D.html