Plant-based Vitamin D3 vs Animal-based Vitamin D3

December 09, 2020

Plant-based Vitamin D3 vs Animal-based Vitamin D3

In this article:

  • What is vitamin D3 and where does it come from?
  • Health effects of vitamin D deficiency
  • What are the benefits of vitamin D?
  • Dietary sources of vitamin D
  • Plant vs. animal sources of vitamin D

The Details of Vitamin D3

Vitamin D, also called “calciferol” or the sunshine vitamin is a fat-soluble vitamin that can be produced by the body or absorbed by some natural foods and vitamin d supplements. Vitamin D helps to protect our bone health by retaining calcium and phosphorus. Adequate vitamin D intake is crucial to the healthy growth of our bones and teeth and can help to prevent conditions affecting the skeletal system. Another health benefit of vitamin D is immune system support.

Choosing the right form of vitamin D for you will depend primarily on your diet. Unlike vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) which can only be found in plant-based sources, vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) can be both synthesized within the body or via consuming animal products and meats. When ultraviolet (UVB) radiation from sunlight contacts your skin cells, it creates vitamin D3. Then, the stored inactive version of the vitamin (AKA 25-hydroxyvitamin d) is converted by the kidneys into its active form of calcitriol. The total body effects of vitamin D are too good to pass up!

The Goldilocks Zone of Vitamin D

Having too little and too much vitamin D can have negative health consequences. Vitamin D deficiency is not uncommon, especially during the winter in the northern hemisphere. Not having enough vitamin D has side effects including tiredness, severe muscle and bone pain, and frequent stress fractures. It can also contribute to a number of medical conditions that range in severity from seasonal depression to heart disease.

Factors that can increase your likelihood of vitamin D deficiency include:

  • Environmental pollution
  • Using sunscreen (which inhibits UVB absorption and vitamin D creation)
  • Lack of sunlight or time outdoors
  • Having darker skin (higher levels of melanin prohibit vitamin D absorption)

Having low vitamin D is more likely than having too much vitamin D, but both are possible. High doses of vitamin D can lead to vitamin D toxicity or hypervitaminosis D. When this occurs, calcium builds up in the gut and can lead to constipation or hypercalcemia of the blood. Though it's rare, you should consult your health care provider to determine your vitamin D status before you begin supplementing.

The Benefits of Vitamin D

Many of us are now facing a new dilemma - the health effects of indoor isolation due to COVID. Older adults are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, so many have barely ventured outside of the house in recent months. Unfortunately, this also puts them at risk of vitamin D deficiencies which can leave the bones brittle, prone to fractures, and possibly deformed. When sunlight isn't in abundance, dietary supplements can make up for it.

  • Decrease Risk of Chronic Bone Degeneration As we mentioned above, vitamin D plays an important role in our bone health and immune system. By increasing both calcium and phosphorus absorption, vitamin D can help to promote healthy bones while managing bone conditions like rickets, osteomalacia, and osteoporosis.
  • Support a Healthy Cardiovascular System: Vitamin D contributes to regulating blood pressure, vascular cell growth, and inflammatory and fibrotic pathways and thus may be linked to preventing heart disease.
  • Manage Weight: Vitamin D and calcium have been known to help manage your appetite and cravings, which are related to maintaining a healthy weight. In one study, participants who took vitamin D and calcium supplements achieved weight loss as compared to the placebo.
  • Reduced Risk of Multiple Sclerosis: Interestingly, researchers have found that diseases such as multiple sclerosis were far less frequent in people who lived closer to the equator and thus got more sunlight. This prompted a series of clinical trials and studies into the link between vitamin D deficiencies and the risk of multiple sclerosis. Through a collection of various studies collected by the National Institutes of Health, they were able to show that getting an adequate amount of vitamin D may help to decrease the risk of multiple sclerosis and help to manage the disease's progress.
  • Supplement Breastfeeding: Vitamin D supplements are often given to babies who are breastfed to support their overall health and promote healthy bone development. Of course, always consult your doctor before incorporating supplements into the diets of yourself or your children.
  • Manage Depression: Not surprisingly, Vitamin D supplementation is also used to help manage seasonal depression (SAD).
  • Support Immune Function: Vitamin D is crucial to our immune function. Low vitamin D levels are associated with an increased risk of respiratory conditions as well as viral and bacterial respiratory infections. Recent studies showed that patients who contracted COVID-19 yet had sufficient levels of vitamin D were less likely to experience adverse effects and death. For this reason, maintaining a healthy level of vitamin D can help to strengthen your immune system and may help you to avoid or overcome COVID-19. Of course, vitamin D should not be a primary defense against the virus, but when paired with the CDC guidelines for distancing, you may decrease your risk of infection.

If skin cancer weren't in the equation, sunbathing would be a perfect solution to vitamin D deficiencies. Since that's not a viable option, don't ditch your sunscreen, reach for a supplement instead!

Food Sources of Vitamin D

When it comes to food, vitamin D2 can be found in plant sources and D3 in animal sources. For vegan sources, mushrooms and orange juice are your best bet. Otherwise, vitamin D3 can be found in

  1. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines
  2. Fish oil, specifically cod liver oil
  3. Egg yolk
  4. Liver
  5. Fortified dairy products

Diet alone typically cannot provide the amount of vitamin D that your body needs. By taking a multivitamin and/or vitamin D supplement, you can fill in the gaps. Most vitamin D3 supplements are not vegan, as they are sourced from lanolin, the coating of sheep's wool. With that said, vegan Vitamin D3 supplements are out there. Also known as lichen vitamin D3, these supplements derive vitamin D from algae and lichen fungus.

Which form is better?

Vegan vitamin D3 was unheard of until recently. Lanolin, the most unsuspecting ingredient, has more research and clinical trials to back it up than lichen sources. It's tried and true! With that said, plant sources are typically cleaner and more sustainable when compared to animal-based products. Lichen is typically more expensive but can be a great choice for anyone following a strict vegan diet. Vegans can also squeeze in more vitamin D with the above foods and by getting healthy amounts of sun now and again. For specific medical advice on which supplement fits your unique needs, talk to your doctor. They will be able to check your blood levels of vitamin D to find a recommended dietary allowance that fits your needs and lifestyle. In a world of physical distancing, a virtual appointment with your doctor can get you on the right track to improve immunity, alleviated depression, and strong healthy bones all thanks to vitamin D3!

Summary Points

  • Unlike vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) which can only be found in plant-based sources, vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) can be both synthesized within the body or via consuming animal products and meats
  • Not having enough vitamin D has side effects including tiredness, severe muscle and bone pain, and the risk of frequent stress fractures
  • Vitamin D and calcium have been known to help manage your appetite and cravings, which are related to maintaining a healthy weight
  • Vitamin D supplementation is also used to help manage seasonal depression (SAD)
  • Low vitamin D levels are associated with an increased risk of respiratory conditions as well as viral and bacterial respiratory infections

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Article References:

  1. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/benefits-vitamin-d
  3. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-d-coronavirus#does-it-protect-against-covid-19
  4. https://www.webmd.com/drugs/2/drug-10175/vitamin-d3-oral/details
  5. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/benefits-vitamin-d#how-much-you-need
  6. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/#en137
  7. https://www.webmd.com/drugs/2/drug-10175/vitamin-d3-oral/details
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yf8uYzgMsEw




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