Young woman getting vitamin D from a vegan drink

Vegan Vitamin D: Food vs. Supplements

We've all heard it before: vitamin D is arguably the most important vitamin in the body. That's because this nutrient is the only vitamin that is also classified as a hormone, and has a constellation of important roles in the body—supporting everything from immune health to your heart, bones and brain.

But many of us struggle to get enough; indeed, 42% of Americans are vitamin D deficient. It can be even trickier for vegans, because plant-based foods are not a great source of the sunshine vitamin. So how can you ensure you have adequate levels of vitamin D while following a vegan diet?

One option is to choose a high-quality vegan vitamin D supplement. But it's not always easy to figure out which one to buy and how much you need, not to mention what else you can do to support healthy vitamin D levels.

So, let's address some of the most commonly asked questions we get about the best ways for vegans to get enough vitamin D.

What are the health benefits of vitamin D?

Why do we all need enough vitamin D? Let us count the ways. Vitamin D supports:

  • Healthy bones

  • Immune health

  • Cognitive health

  • Heart health and already-healthy blood pressure

  • and more…

Ultimately, having proper vitamin D levels is an essential part of staying healthy…and since supplementing is easy, it's definitely a good example of "better safe than sorry."

Why is vitamin D3 the best form of vitamin D?

Vitamin D3, also called cholecalciferol, readily converts into the active form of vitamin D in the body, which is called 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D or calcitriol. Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) does not convert as efficiently into the active form.

Do vegans need vitamin D3?

To achieve optimal levels of vitamin D3, it is very difficult for vegans to rely on sunlight and diet without supplementation.  That's because a strict vegan diet only supplies vitamin D2, which is also called ergocalciferol. Ergocalciferol does not readily convert into the biologically active form of vitamin D as efficiently as vitamin D3 (called cholecalciferol), which comes from animal products as well as sunlight.

Fortunately, there are sources of vegan vitamin D3 on the market, which are nutritionally superior to vitamin D2.

What is vegan vitamin D3 made up of?

Lichen is a good vegan source of vitamin D

Vegan vitamin D3 isn't sourced from any plant because plants don't produce vitamin D3. The currently available vegan vitamin D3 supplements are either sourced from algae or lichen.

Maybe you're assuming that algae are plants. Fun fact: algae are not plants nor are they animals. They're not fungi either; instead, they are protists. One of the four kingdoms of multicellular life, protists like algae share some characteristics of animals, and it's because of this that certain species of algae can synthesize vitamin D3 in response to UV light—just like animals can do.

Lichens are sort of also algae too; but technically, they are two or more organisms (usually fungi or algae) functioning in a symbiotic relationship. You can think of them like a permanent marriage or fusion between these tiny organisms. Lichen grows everywhere from rocks to trees and cover about 8% of the Earth's land surface!

What is in "regular" vitamin D3?

Most vitamin D3 comes from lanolin in sheep's hair

Most non-vegan vitamin D3 is made by copying the way we humans produce vitamin D3 in response to sunlight. To accomplish this, the most common source used is lanolin, a waxy substance found in sheep's wool.

To make vitamin D3, the first step is to isolate a compound called 7-dehydrocholesterol from inside the oil of the lanolin. 7-dehydrocholesterol is a molecule that is found in our skin and upon exposure to UV light, which we get from the sun, it is biochemically converted into cholecalciferol (vitamin D3). Next, 7-dehydrocholesterol is exposed to UV light and it converts into cholecalciferol, which is no different than the conversion that occurs naturally in response to sunlight in humans.

For those seeking out a vegan vitamin D3, it might be worth contemplating a non-vegan vitamin D3 that comes from lanolin. Why? Because sheering of sheep's wool is just like a basic haircut that we humans get. For many sheep that do little to no shedding, sheering reduces rates of infection and risk of overheating, and increases their mobility.

Where to get vegan vitamin D3?

Life Extension has recently started offering our own vegan vitamin D3 at a 125 mcg (5,000 IU) dose. It is sourced from specific species of algae that can synthesize vitamin D3 in response to sunlight. This same vitamin D formula can also be found in our own plant based multi-vitamin at a 25 mcg (1,000 IU) dose.

Is vegan vitamin D3 just as effective as non-vegan D3?

Non-vegan and vegan vitamin D3 are equally effective. This is because they are both cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) to the exact molecular structure (otherwise it wouldn't be vitamin D3.)

However, not all vegan supplement alternatives provide the same molecules as their non-vegan counterparts. For example, most vegan omega-3 uses alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), whereas non-vegan omega-3 contains EPA and DHA. Only a small percentage of ALA converts into EPA and DHA, which are the compounds that provide most of the benefits.

What are vegan foods that are high in vitamin D?

Unfortunately, a strict vegan diet will not supply any vitamin D3, only vitamin D2. Therefore, vegans must rely on sunlight and supplementation. (Many people think that orange juice fortified with vitamin D3 is vegan, however the vitamin D3 is most likely to be sourced from lanolin or fish.)

Great vegan dietary sources of vitamin D2 are:  

  • Mushrooms
  • Soy milk and almond milk
  • Tofu

In addition, try The Vegan Cookbook for a variety of recipes including meals that are higher in vitamin D2.

Is it better to get vegan vitamin D from food or supplements?

Supplements are not and were never intended to substitute a healthy diet. If you're supplementing with vitamin D3 and on a vegan diet you should still strive to eat a rainbow of foods to get a proper balance of all the micronutrients.   

How much vitamin D3 should I take?

The optimal blood range of vitamin D3 is between 50-80 ng/mL and to achieve this most people need to take between 2,000-10,000 IU (50 mcg-250 mcg) daily. Once optimal vitamin D blood levels are achieved, it's a good idea to check them again once a year.

To check your blood levels, you can order a 25-hydroxyvitamin D blood test from Life Extension.

References

By: Chancellor Faloon, Health & Wellness Author

Chancellor Faloon is a graduate of Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences. He is dedicated to disseminating guidance on achieving better health and wellness. He has had various roles in the company, but scientific writing has always been his top priority. Chance has also raced in multiple full and half marathons.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD