(This is the fourth installment of the The Wasteful American series. To read the others, click here, here and here)

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How much energy is wasted as a result of fortifying foods with vitamin D instead of giving everyone a short bath of scrumptious sunlight during the day? Vitamin D3, added to most dairy products to prevent rickets and (incidentally) reduce the risks of osteoporosis, other bone disorders, and several types of cancer, surely costs something to manufacture and distribute industrially, while the human body synthesizes it naturally when skin meets sunshine. (Moonshine, on the other hand, causes our skin to produce excess pheromones and colorful auras.)

But free vitamin D may not be free after all, if the risks of drinking up sunlight (e.g. skin cancer, exposure to cat calls, detritus trickling down on your head from your neighbor’s balcony) outweigh the risks of drinking supplemented milk (e.g. getting a milk moustache, which is a giveaway to Evian-guzzling Europeans that you are a disgusting American). We must also calculate the opportunity or time cost of losing labor while sunning. Unless of course sunning positively affects productivity like meditation, exercise, or napping (all of which one might even do in the sun) – increasing well-being and efficiency alike. And what about people living in sun-deprived places like Ivy Leagues, and people with photosensitivity disorders such as migraines, lupus, chemical photosensitivity, vitiligo, and being Goth? Surely measures must be taken to avoid leaving them out in the cold. (Except the Goths, who probably like it.)

Research question: Would it be more efficient for Americans to ditch vitamin D supplementation, and soak up some sun instead?

The short answer is that we probably need both dietary supplementation and sun to encourage optimal serum levels of vitamin D, which is actually a hormone that got stuck with the vitamin label before we knew better. Perhaps workers would be more efficient if they were given private balconies on which to nap au naturel so as to maximize the brain’s synthesis of daily data and the skin’s synthesis of vitamin D. But I am The Wasteful American – not The Wasteful Pinko Commie Bastard – so we’ll refocus on matters of industrial efficiency that don’t threaten the class system.

What’s the cost of lost labor from sunshine and from lack of it – what exactly is at stake? What amount of vitamin D is needed for optimum health? Where is the supplementation found in a normal American diet – is it only in fortified dairy products? What does it cost to produce this mainstream vitamin D supplementation? Are there any risks associated with manufacturing, distributing, or consuming it?

We can estimate the cost of lost labor that is a result of photosensitivity disorders by starting with the cost of lost labor due to all disability and illnesses including these disorders – about $260 billion a year.[1] Although some disorders such as PTSD and autism spectrum disorders might include sensory hypersensitivities, photosensitivity would not be the primary disabling or labor-costing symptom in these instances. Migraines, however, are relatively common excuses for sick days: in one European study, 14% of the population reported experiencing migraine in a given year, and American incidence of chronic health problems tends to be higher because we work too much and have to deal with President George W. Bush.[2] It seems reasonable to estimate that photosensitivity disorders account for between 2% and 10% of lost labor — $5.2-26 billion annually. On the other hand, Seasonal Affective Disorder may affect 95% of your students in February if you teach at a small liberal arts college in New England – in which case it would be priceless to you for the government to strongly encourage sunning.

But how much sunning is enough? It used to be conventional wisdom that the sun required for adequate vitamin D synthesis is a mere twenty minutes of ambient exposure to hands and face a few times a week.[3] Now it turns out breastfeeding mothers frequently have low serum vitamin D, and consequently we’re seeing an alarming, nation-wide resurgence of rickets in their completely breastfed offspring.[4]

Would moderate weekly or daily sun for the purpose of vitamin D supplementation increase sun cancer risks? More importantly, would it make us age faster, decreasing the quality of life of millions of wrinkly old geezers who could’ve looked younger, longer, if not for my mad sunning scheme? (Full disclosure: I soak up sun on a regular basis, so I do not have the ulterior motive of making my competition for free Lindt samples look older.) Do we really know the answers to these questions based on past data, given the changing composition of the atmosphere in an age of environmental degradation and global warming? Do we really know what this hormone does at all?

Biochemically, we do know that vitamin D and bilirubin levels correlate: when vitamin D is high, bilirubin is high, and vice-versa. Low serum bilirubin means greater chances of mortality from heart disease and certain cancers, and higher incidences of autoimmune phenomena – the common ground of these problems being inflammation.[5] It sounds simple enough: increase vitamin D and bilirubin to decrease inflammation and bolster overall health, right?

Not so fast. Sunlight is radiation, and radiation oxidizes things. Bilirubin is an antioxidant and vitamin D is a hormone that helps cells properly regulate death and oxidative damage. So somehow, getting oxidized (by the sun) helps keep us from sustaining harmful oxidative damage (as quantified in low bilirubin and vitamin D levels). We don’t know how.

Especially considering that I can’t find out where the D3 in my milk comes from (and I’m afraid it has something to do with pig intestines), wouldn’t it be nice to avoid this whole conundrum? Recent research suggests that there is one produce source of vitamin D: mushrooms, if they are exposed to UV radiation after harvesting, become high in D2 – which seems to be just as good as D3 for our purposes. In the future, in addition to being asked to meditate, nap, or frolic in the sunshine several times a week to maintain maximum productivity, your employer may just tell you to go home and take ‘shrooms – especially if you work all day in an office or your nickname is “The Count.”


1. ” ‘Lost Labor Time’ Costs U.S. $260 Billion Each Year: Estimated 18 Million Adults With Chronic Illness or Disability Are Not Working,” published on August 31, 2005 by the Commonwealth Fund, based on data collected in The Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey (2003), accessed online here.

2. “Epidemiology of headache in Europe,” by L. J. Stovner, J.-A. Zwart, K. Hagen, G. M. Terwindt and J. Pascual. European Journal of Neurology, Vol. 13 # 4, Pgs 333 ¨C 345, April 2006, accessed online here.

3. ” Vitamin-D synthesis and metabolism after ultraviolet irradiation of normal and vitamin-D-deficient subjects,” by Adams,J.S., Clemens,T.L., Parrish,J.A., and Holick,M.F. New Engl. J. Med. 306 (1982) 722-725.

4. “Vitamin D Deficiency May Lurk in Babies,” by Roni Caryn Rabin, The New York Times, August 25, 2008, accessed online here.

5. “25-Hydroxyvitamin D Levels and the Risk of Mortality in the General Population,” Michal L. Melamed, MD, MHS; Erin D. Michos, MD, MHS; Wendy Post, MD, MS; Brad Astor, PhD. Arch Intern Med. 2008;168(15):1629-1637, accessed online here. See also “Nutrition: Vitamin D May Play Larger Role in Health,” by Eric Nagourney, The New York Times, Aug. 18, 2008, accessed online here.

6. “What We Eat: If mushrooms see the light,” by Susan Bowerman, The Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2008, accessed online here.