The Best Source of Vitamin D

If one is going to make an evolutionary argument for what a “natural” vitamin D level may be, how about getting vitamin D in the way nature intended—that is, from the sun instead of supplements? I run through the pros and cons in my video The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons?. Though supplements may only cost about 10 dollars a year, sunlight is free. We never have to worry about getting too much vitamin D from sunlight, since our body has a way to regulate production in the skin, so if we get our D from the sun, we don’t have to trust poorly regulated supplement companies not to mislabel their products. Indeed, only about half the supplement brands that researchers tested came within 10 percent of their labeled amount.

Sunlight may also have benefits beyond vitamin D, such as how our body may use the sun’s near-infra-red rays that penetrate our skin to activate chlorophyll by-products in our bloodstream to make Co-Q10. (See my video How to Regenerate Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) Naturally for more on this.) There’s another way our body appears to use the sun’s rays to maximize the effects of the greens we eat: Within 30 minutes of exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight, we can get a significant drop in blood pressure and improvement in artery function, thanks to a burst of nitric oxide-releasing compounds that flow into our bloodstream. We can even measure the nitric oxide gas coming straight off our skin. Of course, we have to eat greens or beets in the first place, but that combo of greens and sunlight may help explain some of the protection that plant-based eaters experience.

Morning sun exposure may help those with seasonal affective disorder, as well as improve the mood of wheelchair-bound nursing home residents. Previously, I’ve talked about the benefits of avoiding light at night—see my video Melatonin and Breast Cancer if you’d like to know more—but underexposure to daytime sunlight may also affect our melatonin levels, which don’t only regulate our circadian rhythms but may also be helpful in the prevention of cancer and other diseases. Older men and women getting two hours of outside light during the day appear to secrete 13 percent more melatonin at night, though we’re not sure what, if any, clinical significance this has.

The downsides of sun exposure include increased risk of cataracts, a leading cause of vision loss, though this risk can be minimized by wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses. Sunlight also ages our skin. In my The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons? video, you can see a dramatic photo of a truck driver who spent decades getting more sun on the left side of his face—though his driver’s side window. “The effects of sunlight on the skin are profound, and are estimated to account for up to 90% of visible skin aging”—that is, wrinkles, thickening, and loss of elasticity. Things like sun exposure and smoking can make us look 11 years older. Cosmetic surgery can make us look up to eight years younger, but a healthy lifestyle may work even better. Doctors don’t preach about sun protection for youthful facial looks, though, but because of skin cancer. Medical authorities from the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, to the Surgeon General warn about excess sun exposure and for good reason, given the millions of skin cancers and thousands of deaths diagnosed every year in the United States alone.

The UV rays in sunlight are considered a complete carcinogen, meaning they can not only initiate cancer, but promote its progression and spread. Melanoma is the scariest, which “makes the rising incidence of melanoma in young women particularly alarming.” This increase has been blamed on the increased usage of tanning salons. Tanning beds and UV rays in general are considered class 1 carcinogens, like processed meat, accounting for as many as three quarters of melanoma cases among young people and six times the risk of melanoma for those who visited tanning salons ten or more times before the age of 30.

The tanning industry is big business, bringing in billions of dollars. There may be more tanning salons than there are Starbucks, and they use those dollars like the tobacco industry: to downplay the risks of their products. Laws are being passed to regulate tanning salons, from complete prohibitions, like in the country of Brazil, to age restrictions for minors. But, unlike tobacco, tanning isn’t addictive. Or is it?

Have you heard of “tanorexia”? Some people tan compulsively and report a so-called tanner’s high. Describing tanning behavior like a substance abuse disorder might seem a little silly—that is, until you stick people in a brain scanner and can show the same kind of reward pathways light up in the brain, thanks to endorphins that are released by our skin when we’re exposed to UV rays. In fact, we can even induce withdrawal-like symptoms by giving tanners opiate-blocking drugs. So, tanning is potentially addictive and dangerous. Harvard researchers suggest that we should “view recreational tanning and opioid drug abuse as engaging in the same biological pathway.” But there’s a reason sun exposure feels good. Sunlight is the primary natural source of vitamin D, and, evolutionarily, it’s more important, in terms of passing along our genes, not to die of rickets in childhood. Unlike natural sunlight, tanning bed lights emit mostly UVA, which is the worst of both worlds: cancer risk with no vitamin D production. The small amount of UVB many tanning beds do emit, however, may be enough to raise vitamin D levels. Is there a way to raise D levels without risking cancer? Yes: vitamin D supplements.


Indeed, we can get some of the benefits of sun exposure without the risks by taking vitamin D supplements. But, for the sake of argument, what if such supplements didn’t exist? Would the benefits of sun exposure outweigh the risks? That’s the subject of my video The Risks and Benefits of Sensible Sun Exposure.

For other videos in this vitamin D series, see:

I also explore Vitamin D as it relates to specific diseases:

Here’s the video about that amazing chlorophyll activation: How to Regenerate Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) Naturally.

What do greens and beets have to do with artery function? Check out some of my latest videos on the wonders of nitrate-rich vegetables:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Best Foods for Acid Reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is one of the most common disorders of the digestive tract. The two most typical symptoms are heartburn and regurgitation of stomach contents into the back of the throat, but GERD is not just burning pain and a sour taste in your mouth. It causes millions of doctor visits and hospitalizations every year in the United States. The most feared complication is cancer. 

You start out with a normal esophagus. If the acid keeps creeping up, your esophagus can get inflamed and result in esophagitis. Esophagitis can transform into Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition which can then turn into adenocarcinoma (a type of cancer). To prevent all that, we need to prevent the acid reflux in the first place.

In the last three decades, the incidence of this cancer in the US has increased six-fold, an increase greater than that of melanoma, breast, or prostate cancer. This is because acid reflux is on the rise. In the United States, we’re up to about 1 in 4 people suffering at least weekly heartburn and/or acid regurgitation, compared to around 5% in Asia. This suggests that dietary factors may play a role.

In general, high fat intake is associated with increased risk, whereas high fiber foods appear to be protective. The reason fat intake may be associated with GERD symptoms and erosive esophagitis is because when we eat fatty foods, the sphincter at the top of the stomach that’s supposed to keep the food down becomes relaxed, so more acid can creep up into the esophagus. In my video Diet & GERD Acid Reflux Heartburn, you can see a study in which researchers fed volunteers a high-fat meal—a McDonald’s sausage and egg McMuffin—compared to a low-fat meal (McDonald’s hot cakes), and there was significantly more acid squirted up in the esophagus after the high-fat meal.

In terms of later stages of disease progression, over the last twenty years 45 studies have been published in the association between diet and Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer. In general, they found that meat and high-fat meals appeared to increase cancer risk. Different meats were associated with cancers in different locations, thoughj. Red meat was more associated with cancer in the esophagus, whereas poultry was more associated with cancer at the top of the stomach. Plant-based sources of protein, such as beans and nuts, were associated with a significantly decreased risk of cancer.

Those eating the most antioxidant-rich foods have half the odds of esophageal cancer, while there is practically no reduction in risk among those who used antioxidant vitamin supplements, such as vitamin C or E pills. The most protective produce may be red-orange vegetables, dark green leafies, berries, apples, and citrus. The benefit may come from more than just eating plants. Eating healthy foods crowds out less healthy foods, so it may be a combination of both.

Based on a study of 3,000 people, the consumption of non-vegetarian foods (including eggs) was an independent predictor of GERD. Egg yolks cause an increase in the hormone cholecystokinin, which may overly relax the sphincter that separates the esophagus from the stomach. The same hormone is increased by meat, which may help explain why plant-based diets appear to be a protective factor for reflux esophagitis.

Researchers found that those eating meat had twice the odds of reflux-induced esophageal inflammation. Therefore, plant-based diets may offer protection, though it’s uncertain whether it’s attributable to the absence of meat in the diet or the increased consumption of healthy foods. Those eating vegetarian consume greater amounts of fruits and vegetables containing innumerable phytochemicals, dietary fiber, and antioxidants. They also restrict their consumption of animal sources of food, which tend to be fattier and can thus relax that sphincter and aggravate reflux.

GERD is common; its burdens are enormous. It relapses frequently and can cause bleeding, strictures, and a deadly cancer. The mainstay of treatment is proton pump inhibitor drugs, which rake in billions of dollars. We spend four billion dollars on Nexium alone, three billion on Prevacid, two billion on Protonix, one billion on Aciphex. These drugs can cause nutrient deficiencies and increase the risk for pneumonia, food poisoning, and bone fractures. Thus, it is important to find correctable risk factors and correct them. Known correctable risk factors have been things like obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption. Until recently, though, there hadn’t been studies on specifically what to eat and what to avoid, but now we have other correctable factors to help prevent this disease.

For more on GERD, see: Diet & Hiatal HerniaCoffee & Mortality, and Club Soda for Stomach Pain & Constipation.

I also have a video about esophageal cancer, detailing the extraordinary reversal of the kinds of precancerous changes that lead to the devastating condition—with nothing but strawberries: Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: PDPics / Pixabay. Image has been modified.