Synthetic vs. Vegan D3: Impact on Health & Sustainability


The prevalence of vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency (i.e., inadequate levels) is significant. The journal Nutrients1 indicated that 29 percent of the U.S. population is vitamin D deficient and an additional 41 percent are vitamin D insufficient. Considering vitamin Dโ€™s critical for building bone and for so many other aspects of human health, this is hugely problematic. It also helps explain why, arguably, more human research on vitamin D has been conducted in recent years than any other nutrient. According to a PubMed search in 2023, there were 3,309 human clinical studies published in scientific journals in the past 10 years on vitamin Dโ€”and a grand total of 6,687 human clinical studies since 1965 (when only three clinical studies on vitamin D were conducted).

Vitamin D Benefits

Many of the aforementioned studies demonstrated vitamin Dโ€™s well-known role in facilitating calcium absorption and promoting bone health.2 Beyond that, vitamin D has also been shown to have value as a dietary supplement for the support of blood sugar, insulin, heart health, cholesterol, intestinal health, liver health, thyroid health, menstrual health, fertility (women and men), ovarian health, urinary health, immune health, muscle comfort, age-related muscle health, joint health, moodiness, anxiety (stress related), upper respiratory health, lung health, acne (non-cystic), skin comfort and testosterone.3-8

Vitamin D Usage

Consistent with the impressive number of human studies conducted on vitamin D, this vitaminโ€™s market size is likewise impressive. In 2022, the global vitamin D market was $1.3 billion. In 2023 it is estimated to reach $1.4 billionโ€”and the market is projected to reach $1.9 billion in 2027. Thatโ€™s a CAGR of 7.1 percent.9

It should be noted that most of the vitamin D being sold is vitamin D3. This is important since there are two primary forms of vitamin D available for use in dietary supplements: cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) and ergocalciferol (vitamin D2). Cholecalciferol is the form made in the human body, and it is more active than ergocalciferol. In fact, vitamin D2 potency is less than one third that of vitamin D310โ€”so D3 is generally considered the preferred form of vitamin D.

The problem is that, heretofore, commercial cholecalciferol was exclusively derived from lanolin (from sheep) or fish liver oil, and so was not considered vegan, nor was it necessarily a sustainable or non-GMO (genetically modified organism) source. Furthermore, lanolin from sheepโ€™s wool undergoes esterification, dehydrogenation, and saponification to become 7-dehydrocholesterol. It then undergoes photoreaction, crystallization, and concentration to become cholecalciferol. This is a synthetic process. To be clear, vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) derived from lanolin is synthetic. Now, however, there are vegan and natural sources of D3. My personal favorite is one extracted from reindeer lichen aka, Cladonia rangeiferina (VegaDelight from Nutraland USA). Whatโ€™s so special about reindeer lichen? Keep reading.

Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia Rangiferina)

Researchers have identified reindeer lichen as being able to provide a predictable vitamin D source for humans.11 This makes sense considering that pro-vitamins D (7-DHC and ergosterol) is converted into vitamin D3 and D2 via pre-vitamin D at low temperatures (<16 degrees Celsius) in the reindeer lichen.12 So, letโ€™s take this opportunity for a closer look at reindeer lichen.

Lichen Introduction

Lichens are used in traditional medicine, food, dyes, in the production of alcohol and perfume, and various other ethnic uses by cultures across the Himalayas and southwestern parts of China.13 Evidence-based knowledge from historical and modern literature and investigation of ethnic uses from 1990 indicated that 142 lichen species have been used as medicine in the Himalayas and southwestern parts of China, with 42 species having been utilized as food. Furthermore, some lichens are currently used in ethnic and modern life.14 Cladonia rangiferina, commonly known as reindeer lichen (due to the fact that it is a food source for reindeer), is a primary lichen used historically and in modern times.

Reindeer Lichen Use as Food

From the perspective of use as a food, small amounts of reindeer lichen have been nibbled or crumbled into soup. Norwegians sometimes eat reindeer lichen and believe the taste to be crisp and agreeable though bitter. Likewise, the Labrador Inuit will eat reindeer moss in times of starvation because it contains โ€œenough nourishment to sustain life.โ€ It is eaten by the Inuit, Igloolik, Copper, Caribou, Netslik, Baffin Island, Nuamiut and Polar Chipewyan peoples. During World War II, a method of using reindeer lichen for making glucose was developed because beet sugar was scarce, and potatoes and grains were scarce. The glucose yield was 75 percent of the dry weight of the lichen. For a time, a whisky was made in Denmark and a brandy was made in Sweden from reindeer lichen.15

Reindeer Lichen Use as Medicine

Reindeer lichen has historically been used to treat colds, arthritis, fever, jaundice, constipation, convulsions, cough and tuberculosis.16 Research has shown that reindeer lichen contains a variety of other constituents, including atranorin and fumarprotocetraric acidโ€”demonstrated to have significant free radical scavenging activity, including neutralization of the superoxide free radical. Likewise, reindeer lichen also had antimicrobial activity, and strong anticancer activity in human melanoma and human colon carcinoma cell lines.17

Inuit of Baffin Island boil reindeer lichen to make a broth, which is then used for sickness and eye infections. The Ojibwa of Northeastern North America historically made decoction of reindeer lichen in which to bathe newborns to give them strength. For a laxative, reindeer lichen was boiled in water. For respiratory infections, it was boiled in milk.18

Reindeer Lichen as a Source of Nutrients

In addition, Reindeer lichen naturally contains a number of different nutrients. This includes zinc, potassium, phosphorus, sulfur, boron, copper and magnesium.19 Other naturally containing nutrients include protein, fiber, fat, niacin, calcium and carbohydrates.20 More significantly, reindeer lichen is also a source of vitamin D.21,22 In fact, reindeer lichen serves as important winter feeds for reindeer and caribou, and it is thought to provide a vital source of vitamin D for the animals, especially during winter.23

Sustainability of Reindeer Lichen

As previously noted, reindeer lichen serves as a source of food for reindeer and caribou. Nevertheless, in no way does the practice of wildcrafting reindeer lichen as a source of vitamin D endanger its supply. Research24 indicates that the overgrowing of the fertile branches of reindeer lichen ensures continued vegetative growth, which is not impeded by sexual reproduction. Furthermore, China started to use the IUCN Red List Criteria of Threatened Species to assess endangered species in the early 1980s.25 reindeer lichen is listed in the IUCN Red List as โ€œLeast Concern (LC).โ€26,27 This means that reindeer lichen has been โ€œevaluated against the criteria and does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable or Near Threatened. Widespread and abundant taxa are included in this category.โ€28

Vitamin D3 From Reindeer Lichen

There are four reasons that vitamin D3 from reindeer lichen is my favorite vegan source of this nutrient. One is reindeer lichenโ€™s history of safe and effective use as a food and medicine in traditional cultures as previously discussed. The second reason is that it is naturally non-GMO. A third reason is its sustainably, also previously discussed. The fourth reason is transparency. Reindeer lichen is identified as the specific lichen source in the vegan vitamin D3 material (VegaDelight from Nutraland USA). There are other lichen and algae sources vegan vitamin D3 available, but as of this writing and to the best of my knowledge, the suppliers donโ€™t indicate the lichen or algae species being used. From my perspective, this is problematic considering that:

โ€ข There are more than 20,999 lichen species29,30 some of which are rare or endangered, and some that contain toxic compounds as well.

โ€ข There are about 320,500 algae,31,32 including some harmful to human health. Also, by hiding the alga source, there is no way to independently confirm if it is from clean or polluted waters.

Conclusion

Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency is prevalent. This is problematic considering vitamin Dโ€™s critical for building bone and for so many other aspects of human health. Vitamin D3 is the most active form of vitamin D but, heretofore, commercial D3 was exclusively derived from lanolin (from sheep) or fish liver oil, and so was not considered vegan, nor was it necessarily a sustainable or non-GMO source. Now, however, a vegan source of D3 from reindeer lichen is available. As of this writing, and to the best of my knowledge, this is the only vegan source of D3 that publicly identifies the species from which it is extracted with documented sustainability.VR

References:

1 Reider CA, Chung RY, Devarshi PP, Grant RW, Hazels Mitmesser S. Inadequacy of Immune Health Nutrients: Intakes in US Adults, the 2005-2016 NHANES. Nutrients. 2020 Jun 10;12(6):1735.

2 Holick MF. Vitamin D: importance in the prevention of cancers, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004;79(3):362-371.

3 Lin R, White JH. The pleiotropic actions of vitamin D. Bioessays. 2004;26(1):21-28.

4 Griffin MD, Xing N, Kumar R. Vitamin D and its analogs as regulators of immune activation and antigen presentation. Annu Rev Nutr. 2003;23:117-145.

5 Li YC, Kong J, Wei M, Chen ZF, Liu SQ, Cao LP. 1,25-Dihydroxyvitamin D(3) is a negative endocrine regulator of the renin-angiotensin system. J Clin Invest. 2002;110(2):229-238.

6 Borissova AM, Tankova T, Kirilov G, Dakovska L, Kovacheva R. The effect of vitamin D3 on insulin secretion and peripheral insulin sensitivity in type 2 diabetic patients. Int J Clin Pract. 2003;57(4):258-261.

7 Orwoll E, Riddle M, Prince M. Effects of vitamin D on insulin and glucagon secretion in non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. Am J Clin Nutr. 1994;59(5):1083-1087.

8 Inomata S, Kadowaki S, Yamatani T, Fukase M, Fujita T. Effect of 1 alpha (OH)-vitamin D3 on insulin secretion in diabetes mellitus. Bone Miner. 1986;1(3):187-192.

9 Vitamin D Market by Analog (Vitamin D2, Vitamin D3), Form (Dry, Liquid), Application (Feed & Pet Food, Pharma, Functional Food, and Personal Care), End Users (adults, Pregnant Women, and Children), IU Strengt and Region โ€“ Global Forecast to 2027. Markets And Markets. Retrieved June 28, 2023 from www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/vitamin-d-market-22034298.html.

10 Armas LA, Hollis BW, Heaney RP. Vitamin D2 is much less effective than vitamin D3 in humans. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004;89(11):5387-5391.

11 ร‡obanoฤŸlu G. Biology and Natural Sources of Vitamin D. Mehmet Akif Ersoy รผniversitesi fen bilimleri enstitรผsรผ. 2020; 11 (Suppl. 1): 380-391.

12 Gรถring H. Vitamin D in Nature: A Product of Synthesis and/or Degradation of Cell Membrane Components. Biochemistry (Mosc). 2018 Nov;83(11):1350-1357.

13 Kosaniฤ‡ M, Rankoviฤ‡ B, Stanojkovi T, et al. Cladonia lichens and their major metabolites as possible natural antioxidant, antimicrobial and anticancer agents. LWT-Food Sci Technol. 2014; 59: 518e525.

14 Yang M-X, Devkota S, Wang L-S, Scheidegger,C. Ethnolichenologyโ€”The Use of Lichens in the Himalayas and Southwestern Parts of China. Diversity. 2021; 13(7): 330.

15 Fowler KD. Journey to Enlichenment: Lichens in the Atlantic World Food Chain. University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 3 Mar 2014. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://awrn.uncg.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Fowler-Lichen-Recipes-2.pdf.

16 Kosaniฤ‡ M, Rankoviฤ‡ B, Stanojkovi T, et al. Cladonia lichens and their major metabolites as possible natural antioxidant, antimicrobial and anticancer agents. LWT-Food Sci Technol. 2014; 59: 518e525.

17 Kosaniฤ‡ M, Rankoviฤ‡ B, Stanojkovi T, et al. Cladonia lichens and their major metabolites as possible natural antioxidant, antimicrobial and anticancer agents. LWT-Food Sci Technol. 2014; 59: 518e525.

18 Fowler KD. Journey to Enlichenment: Lichens in the Atlantic World Food Chain. University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 3 Mar 2014. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://awrn.uncg.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Fowler-Lichen-Recipes-2.pdf.

19 Gao J, Wu Y, Liu B, Zhao R, et al. Vertical Distribution Patterns of Element Concentrations in Podetia of Cladonia rangiferina from Huzhong Natural Reserve, Heilongjiang, China. Pol J Environ Stud. 2021;30(1):103โ€“110.

20 Fowler KD. Journey to Enlichenment: Lichens in the Atlantic World Food Chain. University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 3 Mar 2014. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://awrn.uncg.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Fowler-Lichen-Recipes-2.pdf.

21 ร‡obanoฤŸlu G. Biology and Natural Sources of Vitamin D. Mehmet Akif Ersoy รผniversitesi fen bilimleri enstitรผsรผ. 2020; 11 (Suppl. 1): 380-391.

22 Wang T, Bengtsson G, Kรคrnefelt I, Bjรถrn LO. Provitamins and vitamins D2 and D3 in Cladina spp. over a latitudinal gradient: possible correlation with UV levels. J Photochem Photobiol B. 2001 Sep 1;62(1-2):118-22.

23 Ivanova D, Ivanov D. Ethnobotanical use of lichens: lichens for food review. Scripta Scientifica Medica. 2009; 41:11-6.

24 Jahns HM, Hardt K, Ott S. Sexual reproduction and growth-pattern in Cladonia rangiferina. Bibliotheca Lichenologica. 2004; 88: 223-228.

25 Zang C, Cai L, Li J, et al. Preparation of the China Biodiversity Red List and its significance for biodiversity conservation within China. Biodiversity Science. 2016, 24 (5): 610โ€“614.

26 Redlist of Chinaโ€™s Biodiversity โ€” Lichens.

27 National Red List. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from https://archive.nationalredlist.org/search2/species-search/.

28 IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria. Version 2.1 Second edition. IUCN Species Survival Commission. As approved by the 51st meeting of the IUCN Council, Gland, Switzerland, 9 February 2000. Pg 15.

29 List of common names of lichen genera. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_common_names_of_lichen_general. 30 https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/fungi/lichens/lichensy.html.

31 Listing the Worldโ€™s Algae. www.algaebase.org/.

32 Algae Herbarium. National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany. 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20081201112552/http://botany.si.edu/projects/algae/herbarium.htm.

Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, Professor Emiritus of Nutraceutical Science, is a nutritionist, herbalist, writer and educator. For more than 40 years he has educated and trained natural product retailers and health care professionals, has researched and formulated natural products for dozens of dietary supplement companies, and has written articles on nutrition, herbal medicine, nutraceuticals and integrative health issues for trade, consumer magazines and peer-reviewed publications. He can be reached at eugenejbruno@gmail.com.



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