Making Vitamin D Without Sunshine

We know that our body makes its own Vitamin D when we’re out in the sunshine, but what happens when we can’t get enough of the shiny stuff?

Scientists have provided us with an ingenious solution, and here we uncover the process of how chemists are able to harness UV light to create a powerful vitamin supplement.

Why is vitamin D so important?

When UVB rays penetrate the skin, they cause a chemical reaction that converts fatty acids into Vitamin D, which enables the body to absorb calcium from food. Low levels of D result in poor bone health and increased risk of fractures.

An alarming statistic from the Department of Health shows that a quarter of people in the UK have low levels of vitamin D. Children are dangerously at risk and the childhood condition known as rickets, believed to have died out long ago, is now re-emerging. The adult version of rickets is called osteomalcia which causes severe bone pain. Every organ of the body has vitamin D receptors and deficiency has also been linked to other serious health problems such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes and cognitive impairment in the elderly.

Health agencies are recommending that vitamin D be routinely taken in supplement form, particularly during the winter months, by all age groups.

Sunshine in Supplement Form

Science hasn’t quite mastered the knack of bottling sunshine, yet we have at our disposal vitamin D supplements. We can buy foods which have vitamin D added, such as breakfast cereals, margarine spreads and chilled desserts. So where does it come from?

You may be taking an educated guess that vitamin D is extracted from certain natural foods such as oily fish, egg yolks, or even mushrooms. It’s quite true that these foods do contain vitamin D, and they’re very useful additional sources for topping up our personal levels, but these sources are unsuitable for extracting the required concentration of the vitamin for supplement purposes.

The kind of vitamin D which we can most readily absorb and which is easily utilised by our body is D3, otherwise known as cholecalciferol. The main, but not the only source of D3, is from a type of oil, and here’s a clue!

Yes, these peacefully grazing sheep are vitamin D machines; their woolly fleece is coated in a substance called lanolin, a waxy oil which protects them from extremes of winter weather. It’s the lanolin, extracted from the sheep’s wool, which is used for making vitamin D.

The sheep are not harmed in any way during this process. After shearing for the summertime, a process which involves the sheep farmer removing the thick fleece with electric clippers, the wool is sent off to be thoroughly washed and the lanolin separated from the wash water. Now in the form of a gold coloured waxy substance, the lanolin is bottled and sent to a refinery. The clean wool can then be used for making carpets and garments.

The next stage in the process is a plant where lanolin is purified, refined, and finally crystallised. Then comes the scientific bit. The lanolin, now in crystal form and resembling white sugar, is dispatched to the lab.

This is where sunshine, or simulated sunshine, plays its part. The crystallised lanolin is placed inside a special kiln which exposes it to extremely powerful UV light. This precisely-timed operation mimics the effect of sunshine on the substance, creating the synergy which results in the manufacture of vitamin D. It’s like a laboratory version of what happens beneath our skin when the sun shines on us.

The amount of vitamin D substance gleaned from a huge amount of sheep’s wool, plus a great deal of processing, is quite tiny, making the end-product extremely valuable. A small bottle of vitamin D substance is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, but fortunately, the human body requires miniscule amounts to function healthily, so supplements can be produced and marketed at a very affordable price, despite the high cost of the active ingredient.

BBC Chanel 4 screened an interesting documentary on the benefits of taking vitamin D as a supplement and the process used to manufacture it from lanolin

Vegan Vitamin D

Because many people prefer to take a vitamin D supplement which comes from plants rather than animals, a great deal of research has been carried out to discover a plant which contains vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) in concentrations which can equal those extracted from lanolin.

Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is the most usual form of the vitamin to be found in plant sources. However, a plant has been discovered which does contain vitamin D3 and fills the bill perfectly. This is an edible form of lichen which grows on rocks and trees in Scandinavia, North America and parts of Asia. This lichen provides a very similar concentration of vitamin D3 as lanolin and provides the perfect vegan supplement.

Lichen is a unique plant which is a mixture of fungus and algae. It looks like moss and can survive in areas of extreme climatic conditions.

The lichen is gathered and washed at the site where it is found, then sent away for processing. As with lanolin, the process involves extraction, purification and concentration (this takes place in the UK). It is then added to a vegetable oil carrier, ready to be used for making those essential vitamin supplements.

Hopefully we have uncovered some of the mystery behind how the sunshine vitamin is produced to save us from becoming short of the essential health giving properties at times when we just can’t be out there soaking up the golden rays.

April 2017