Monday, February 28, 2011

Vitamin D production from UV radiation: The effects of total cholesterol and skin pigmentation

Our body naturally produces as much as 10,000 IU of vitamin D based on a few minutes of sun exposure when the sun is high. Getting that much vitamin D from dietary sources is very difficult, even after “fortification”.

The above refers to pre-sunburn exposure. Sunburn is not associated with increased vitamin D production; it is associated with skin damage and cancer.

Solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation is generally divided into two main types: UVB (wavelength: 280–320 nm) and UVA (320–400 nm). Vitamin D is produced primarily based on UVB radiation. Nevertheless, UVA is much more abundant, amounting to about 90 percent of the sun’s UV radiation.

UVA seems to cause the most skin damage, although there is some debate on this. If this is correct, one would expect skin pigmentation to be our body’s defense primarily against UVA radiation, not UVB radiation. If so, one’s ability to produce vitamin D based on UVB should not go down significantly as one’s skin becomes darker.

Also, vitamin D and cholesterol seem to be closely linked. Some argue that one is produced based on the other; others that they have the same precursor substance(s). Whatever the case may be, if vitamin D and cholesterol are indeed closely linked, one would expect low cholesterol levels to be associated with low vitamin D production based on sunlight.

Bogh et al. (2010) recently published a very interesting study. The link to the study was provided by Ted Hutchinson in the comments sections of a previous post on vitamin D. (Thanks Ted!) The study was published in a refereed journal with a solid reputation, the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

The study by Bogh et al. (2010) is particularly interesting because it investigates a few issues on which there is a lot of speculation. Among the issues investigated are the effects of total cholesterol and skin pigmentation on the production of vitamin D from UVB radiation.

The figure below depicts the relationship between total cholesterol and vitamin D production based on UVB radiation. Vitamin D production is referred to as “delta 25(OH)D”. The univariate correlation is a fairly high and significant 0.51.

25(OH)D is the abbreviation for calcidiol, a prehormone that is produced in the liver based on vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), and then converted in the kidneys into calcitriol, which is usually abbreviated as 1,25-(OH)2D3. The latter is the active form of vitamin D.

The table below shows 9 columns; the most relevant ones are the last pair at the right. They are the delta 25(OH)D levels for individuals with dark and fair skin after exposure to the same amount of UVB radiation. The difference in vitamin D production between the two groups is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

So there you have it. According to this study, low total cholesterol seems to be associated with impaired ability to produce vitamin D from UVB radiation. And skin pigmentation appears to have little  effect on the amount of vitamin D produced.

I hope that there will be more research in the future investigating this study’s claims, as the study has a few weaknesses. For example, if you take a look at the second pair of columns from the right on the table above, you’ll notice that the baseline 25(OH)D is lower for individuals with dark skin. The difference was just short of being significant at the 0.05 level.

What is the problem with that? Well, one of the findings of the study was that lower baseline 25(OH)D levels were significantly associated with higher delta 25(OH)D levels. Still, the baseline difference does not seem to be large enough to fully explain the lack of difference in delta 25(OH)D levels for individuals with dark and fair skin.

A widely cited dermatology researcher, Antony Young, published an invited commentary on this study in the same journal issue (Young, 2010). The commentary points out some weaknesses in the study, but is generally favorable. The weaknesses include the use of small sub-samples.


Bogh, M.K.B., Schmedes, A.V., Philipsen, P.A., Thieden, E., & Wulf, H.C. (2010). Vitamin D production after UVB exposure depends on baseline vitamin D and total cholesterol but not on skin pigmentation. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 130(2), 546–553.

Young, A.R. (2010). Some light on the photobiology of vitamin D. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 130(2), 346–348.