What you really need to know about the recent vitamin D debacle

Well, it’s Memorial Day. The unofficial start of summer. Which makes it the perfect time to share this latest piece of news—even if it is incredibly frustrating.

A new umbrella review of vitamin D—the sunshine vitamin—made some headlines recently. And I was shocked by them, to be honest. Though I really don’t know why.

Truth is, I’ve been waiting for a report like this to surface for a long time now. Because the mainstream acceptance of vitamin D has seemed just way too good to be true. After all, a nutritional supplement that can actually do something is ripe for ambush.

And that’s exactly what has happened.

After looking at hundreds of meta-analyses on the subject, the researchers behind this recent review claim that there’s no convincing evidence that vitamin D improves outcomes in any health condition.

Their results appeared in the generally respected British Medical Journal. But as far as I’m concerned, this is the very epitome of junk science and irresponsible journalism. Worse, even. Because to mislead and misinform not only the general public, but physicians who are already skeptical of vitamins, is just pure evil.

But at least this time, I’m not the only one outraged.  

Experts and industry leaders from around the world have loudly dismissed this story as “irresponsible.” It completely undermines current public health guidelines for vitamin D intake (which are abysmally low as it is). And it contradicts health claims that even the EUs tough regulators confidently awarded this nutrient.

All based on the results of a study that was poorly designed and highly flawed from the get-go.

Let me explain: So-called “umbrella reviews,” are meta-analyses of meta-analyses. In other words, they review the results of other reviews of published clinical studies. So basically, they’re twice removed from the individual study results they’re supposedly examining.

That makes flaws from the original research—like low doses, or major differences in subjects’ starting levels of vitamin D—even more likely to throw off findings. And it also makes the results more vulnerable to a biased interpretation.

And I’m not just saying that as some rogue voice of criticism. These shortcomings are common knowledge in the medical community. And the study authors themselves admit to them. But that didn’t stop them from making a sweeping—and inaccurate—generalization about a critical nutrient that the vast majority of people simply aren’t getting enough of.

There are likely billions of people suffering from vitamin D deficiency right now, thanks to the dismally low conventional “cutoff” of 25.  If you raised that bar to 60—high enough to actually start seeing benefits—it could make an incredible difference.

Not only to current research results—but to the public health as a whole.

So many studies support the fact that vitamin D is a critical component of bone health and immune function—and pretty much everything in between. To risk apathy from both physicians and patients towards such an easy and cheap solution for incredibly serious health problems is just crazy to me.

Not to mention the fact that vitamins function as part of a much bigger system in the body with huge variables that affect responses in different individuals. I’ve said this before, but there is something fundamentally wrong with trying to study vitamins in the same way you study drugs. (That is, according to their “active ingredients.”)

It’s not that this kind of research doesn’t give you important information. It does, and I report on those findings all the time. But they’re nevertheless incomplete, covering only one small aspect of a much broader mechanism of effectiveness.

Until we recognize these limitations, and start working to overcome them, scientists simply won’t come up with any irrefutable findings about nutritional supplements. And the quest to “prove” vitamins worthless will no doubt continue.

So my advice? Ignore the claptrap and keep taking your vitamin D3—yes, even in the summer months.

Regular sunshine is a great way to boost your levels. But you need to be in full mid-day sun for at least 20 minutes, without sunscreen, and with most of your skin exposed, for it to make a significant difference.

Unless you live in the very southernmost part of the country, even this kind of daily sunshine isn’t likely to cut it. So it’s always smart to supplement with at least 2,000 to 5,000 IUs, all year round.


“Vitamin D and multiple health outcomes: umbrella review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of observational studies and randomised trials.” BMJ. 2014 Apr 1;348:g2035.

Starling, Shane. “BMJ vitamin D research attacked: ‘un-nuanced’, ‘flawed’, ‘irresponsible.’” Nutraingredients.com. 7 Apr. 2014.