I’ll be the first to admit that I’m skeptical of the vast majority of dietary supplements being marketed to athletes and fitness enthusiasts today. Most of these supplements are nothing more than snake oil and lack even the most basic support of their effectiveness in the scientific literature. In my opinion, there is very little need for supplementation if you are eating a healthy and balanced diet.
But that’s not to say that there are NO useful or effective dietary supplements out there, because there are.
Recently, I read a book called Athlete’s Edge: Faster, Quicker, Stronger with Vitamin D written by Dr. John Cannell – the founder and director of the Vitamin D Council.
The main premise of the book is that optimal levels vitamin D can improve muscle tone, muscle strength, balance, reaction time and physical endurance – claims which are all supported by the scientific literature.
What a lot of people don’t know is that an alarmingly high number of individuals living in temperate climates today are vitamin D deficient, which is rather hard to believe considering that most people are not suffering from bone disorders. Fortunately, the fortification of our foods with vitamin D ensures that most people today have enough of the vitamin circulating in their systems to stave off things like rickets and osteomalacia. However, according to the book there is mounting scientific evidence that vitamin D is linked to various other disease states in addition to common bone disorders such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and even cancer! Consequently, scientists state that we need more vitamin D than what was once believed in order to reduce our risk of these diseases and optimize our health.
According to Dr. Cannell no one knows what levels of vitamin D are necessary for optimal health but most experts suggest blood levels of 25(OH)D (25-hydroxy-vitamin D) of at least 40 ng/ml. This limit was determined based on levels found in populations living largely outdoors and therefore is thought to represent a limit intended by nature for human beings. For comparison sake, 25-hydroxy-vitamin D levels of < 8 ng/ml are considered a severe deficiency and can result in bone disorders such as rickets in children or osteomalacia in adults. Levels > 150 ng/ml, on the other hand, can result in vitamin D intoxication. The only way to check your vitamin D levels and be certain of your status is to ask your physician for a 25-hydroxy-vitamin D test.
The cheapest and easiest way to bump up your lagging levels of vitamin D is through sun exposure. Contrary to the advice of dermatologists, small amounts of sun exposure are beneficial to your health. In fact, just 5 to 15 minutes of sunlight exposure on your bare skin will produce thousands of International Units (IUs) of vitamin D. Compare that to an 8oz glass of milk which will only have around 100 IU of vitamin D and you will quickly realize that sun exposure gives you the most bang for your buck. Furthermore, there is absolutely no risk of toxicity as your body has a natural way to regulate production of vitamin D obtained from the sun.
Although sun exposure sounds like the ideal way to get vitamin D into your system, the problem with this method is that for most individuals it is only available for a few months during the year. That’s because during the winter the sun’s rays enter the Earth’s atmosphere at too much of angle, blocking the UVB rays and preventing your skin from producing vitamin D. For people living closer to the equator this isn’t a problem. For the rest of us, supplementation is necessary.
Fortunately, vitamin D supplements are dirt cheap. A bottle of 100, 1000IU tablets of vitamin D will cost you around $8. When purchasing vitamin D supplements you want to make sure to get vitamin D3 as this is the type of vitamin D your body produces in response to sun exposure.
Personally, I have been supplementing with at least 5000 IUs of vitamin D every day for a couple of years now. This is the amount recommended for adults by the Vitamin D Council to achieve optimal levels of circulating vitamin D. This may seem like a lot, but you have to remember that your body can produce up to 10,000 to 25,000 IUs of vitamin D after a little bit of full body sun exposure. According to the Vitamin D Council, vitamin D toxicity usually happens when you take 40,000 IUs per day for several months, so reasonable supplementation is safe.
Since taking supplemental vitamin D3 I have noticed many positive effects. For example, I used to always have problems with shin splints (a perennial issue for runners). I literally tried everything to remedy this problem from buying expensive running shoes, to running only on a rubberized track. None of it made a difference. However, within a month of supplementing with vitamin D3 my shin splints disappeared. I’ve since been running on concrete as much as 4x per week without a single issue.
Another positive effect I’ve noticed since supplementing with vitamin D3 is a marked improvement in my endurance. I’ve literally shaved off a full minute from my 5k without any additional training! After reading Dr. Cannell’s book this all made sense as he cited several studies indicating that athletic performance (including strength and endurance) peaked in the late summer when vitamin D levels were highest. Who would have thought that vitamin D would make you a better athlete?
Lastly, since taking supplemental vitamin D I’ve noticed that my immune system has become more resilient. I hardly ever get sick anymore and on the rare occasion that I do catch a virus I seem to recover from it much more quickly. My friends have also noticed the same thing after supplementing with vitamin D. Turns out that vitamin D can improve your immune system and has a marked effect on the incidence of influenza. In fact, scientists now suggest that the reason why we have an increase in the incidence of flu in the winter is because of a reduction in the levels of vitamin D in the population.
According to Dr. Cannell there is mounting scientific evidence suggesting that most North Americans are vitamin D deficient. The same research is also beginning to uncover the various ways in which vitamin D is crucial to your health and wellness. Among the many benefits of achieving optimal levels of vitamin D is a marked increase in athletic performance. I recommend people begin supplementing with vitamin D3 year round. Research indicates that vitamin D supplementation is cheap, safe, and effective. So start supplementing today to reap the benefits of a healthier and stronger body!