Monday, December 13, 2010

What is a reasonable vitamin D level?

The figure and table below are from Vieth (1999); one of the most widely cited articles on vitamin D. The figure shows the gradual increase in blood concentrations of 25-Hydroxyvitamin, or 25(OH)D, following the start of daily vitamin D3 supplementation of 10,000 IU/day. The table shows the average levels for people living and/or working in sun-rich environments; vitamin D3 is produced by the skin based on sun exposure.

25(OH)D is also referred to as calcidiol. It is a pre-hormone that is produced by the liver based on vitamin D3. To convert from nmol/L to ng/mL, divide by 2.496. The figure suggests that levels start to plateau at around 1 month after the beginning of supplementation, reaching a point of saturation after 2-3 months. Without supplementation or sunlight exposure, levels should go down at a comparable rate. The maximum average level shown on the table is 163 nmol/L (65 ng/mL), and refers to a sample of lifeguards.

From the figure we can infer that people on average will plateau at approximately 130 nmol/L, after months of 10,000 IU/d supplementation. That is 52 ng/mL. Assuming a normal distribution with a standard deviation of about 20 percent of the range of average levels, we can expect about 68 percent of the population to be in the 42 to 63 ng/mL range.

This might be the range most of us should expect to be in at an intake of 10,000 IU/d. This is the equivalent to the body’s own natural production through sun exposure.

Approximately 32 percent of the population can be expected to be outside this range. A person who is two standard deviations (SDs) above the mean (i.e., average) would be at around 73 ng/mL. Three SDs above the mean would be 83 ng/mL. Two SDs below the mean would be 31 ng/mL.

There are other factors that may affect levels. For example, being overweight tends to reduce them. Excess cortisol production, from stress, may also reduce them.

Supplementing beyond 10,000 IU/d to reach levels much higher than those in the range of 42 to 63 ng/mL may not be optimal. Interestingly, one cannot overdose through sun exposure, and the idea that people do not produce vitamin D3 after 40 years of age is a myth.

One would be taking in about 14,000 IU/d of vitamin D3 by combining sun exposure with a supplemental dose of 4,000 IU/d. Clear signs of toxicity may not occur until one reaches 50,000 IU/d. Still, one may develop other complications, such as kidney stones, at levels significantly above 10,000 IU/d.

See this post by Chris Masterjohn, which makes a different argument, but with somewhat similar conclusions. Chris points out that there is a point of saturation above which the liver is unable to properly hydroxylate vitamin D3 to produce 25(OH)D.

How likely it is that a person will develop complications like kidney stones at levels above 10,000 IU/d, and what the danger threshold level could be, are hard to guess. Kidney stone incidence is a sensitive measure of possible problems; but it is, by itself, an unreliable measure. The reason is that it is caused by factors that are correlated with high levels of vitamin D, where those levels may not be the problem.

There is some evidence that kidney stones are associated with living in sunny regions. This is not, in my view, due to high levels of vitamin D3 production from sunlight. Kidney stones are also associated with chronic dehydration, and populations living in sunny regions may be at a higher than average risk of chronic dehydration. This is particularly true for sunny regions that are also very hot and/or dry.


Vieth, R. (1999). Vitamin D supplementation, 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentrations, and safety. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 69(5), 842-856.