I gotta start hawking a supplement of my own

Did you know we’re in the midst of a vitamin D deficiency epidemic? By the standards of the Endocrine Society, 80% of Americans have inadequate vitamin D levels. You better go buy some pills! You better buy Michael Holick’s books! He’s the guy who is obsessed with warning everyone about their dangerously low vitamin D, and he’s not kooky at all.

The Boston University endocrinologist, who perhaps more than anyone else is responsible for creating a billion-dollar vitamin D sales and testing juggernaut, elevates his own levels of the stuff with supplements and fortified milk. When he bikes outdoors, he won’t put sunscreen on his limbs. He has written book-length odes to vitamin D, and has warned in multiple scholarly articles about a “vitamin D deficiency pandemic” that explains disease and suboptimal health across the world.

His fixation is so intense that it extends to the dinosaurs. What if the real problem with that asteroid 65 million years ago wasn’t a lack of food, but the weak bones that follow a lack of sunlight? “I sometimes wonder,” Holick has written, “did the dinosaurs die of rickets and osteomalacia?”

I’ve seen this phenomenon in educated people before: they latch onto one explanation for something, and suddenly they apply it to everything, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof, and insist that it is the One True Theory, and all must bow before it. For other examples, see the Aquatic Ape Absurdity and Brian Ford’s Bullshit. It’s the lure of the Umbrella Hypothesis, braced by a little factlet of truth.

So yes, you can be deficient in vitamin D, and it can lead to real diseases. It’s just that here in developed countries with actual policies that lead to reasonable monitoring and addition of supplements to key foods (milk has been supplemented with vitamin D for over a hundred years to prevent rickets), we’re fine. You don’t need to go to extremes to correct an imaginary deficiency.

Except that inventing imaginary problems and selling the cure is extremely profitable.

Since 2011, Holick’s advocacy has been embraced by the wellness-industrial complex. Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, Goop, cites his writing. Dr. Mehmet Oz has described vitamin D as “the No. 1 thing you need more of,” telling his audience that it can help them avoid heart disease, depression, weight gain, memory loss and cancer. And Oprah Winfrey’s website tells readers that “knowing your vitamin D levels might save your life.” Mainstream doctors have pushed the hormone, including Dr. Walter Willett, a widely respected professor at Harvard Medical School.

He’s been getting paid a thousand dollars every month for his vitamin D promotion! He’s received hundreds of thousands of dollars from pharmaceutical companies! The tanning bed industry donated $150,000 to his research!

I’ve been missing out on the gravy train, and I’ve got to start hawking my own supplement. I thought of one. You know, I bet you’ve eaten hardly any spiders lately. It’s true, isn’t it — they aren’t part of our usual cuisine, and no one spices their food with ground-up spider bits, except for those wierdos in Cambodia, so I can argue without being gainsaid that almost all of us have a spider deficiency. I can even make up statistics, like that 99.7% of Americans haven’t eaten any spider at all lately, and trust that no one will say I’m wrong.

Now I just need a common disease that I can blame entirely on arachnoinsufficiency, and before you know it, Gwyneth Paltrow will be knocking on my door.


  1. chigau (違う) says

    “Gwyneth Paltrow will be knocking on my door.”
    Turn off the lights and pretend you’re not home.
    It works on Halloweeners and Xmas Carollers.

  2. numerobis says

    That reminds me I should probably take my supplement.

    Kids in Nunavut suffer from rickets. The traditional diet — lots of raw seafish — was an OK source of vitamin D. The modern diet isn’t enough for people with very little sun exposure (it’s almost never t-shirt weather here).

  3. keinsignal says

    They say the average person swallows about eight spiders a year but you gotta factor in that there are some people out there really bending the curve.

  4. cartomancer says

    How about “being uglier than the people in the magazines and generally feeling a bit blech”? That’s a chronic condition that pretty much everybody gets.

  5. davidc1 says

    Reminds me of this bit from Blackadder the second . Edmund visits the Doctor.

    Edmund: Never had anything you doctors didn’t try to cure with leeches. A leech on my ear for ear ache, a leech on my bottom for constipation.
    Doctor: They’re marvellous, aren’t they?
    Edmund: Well, the bottom one wasn’t. I just sat there and squashed it.
    Doctor: You know the leech comes to us on the highest authority?
    Edmund: Yes. I know that. Dr. Hoffmann of Stuttgart, isn’t it?
    Doctor: That’s right, the great Hoffmann.
    Edmund: Owner of the largest leech farm of Europe.
    Doctor: Yes. Well, I cannot spend all day gossiping. I’m a busy man. As far as this case is concerned I have now had time to think it over and I can strongly recommend a [in chorus] course of leeches.
    Edmund: Yes. I ‘ll pop a couple down my codpiece before I go to bed ?

  6. Richard Smith says

    Now I just need a common disease that I can blame entirely on arachnoinsufficiency

    Spider veins, of course. Or maybe tarantism.

  7. Chiral says

    I can’t see how this can help those of us with actual vitamin D deficiencies. Curb cut effect is probably canceled out by the fact I’d never buy vit d stuff from these people, cause it probably doesn’t have any. Plus the weird green gel caps my doctor prescribes me don’t cost that much.

    The “average person needs vitamin D supplements” factoid is a statistical error. The average person gets enough vitamin D. Vitamin D Georg, who lives in a cave and never sees the sun or eats fortified food was an outlier and should not have been counted.

  8. anxionnat says

    There are some medications that that actually leach Vitamin D out of the body. Example: I’ve got Crohn’s disease (an autoimmune disease that affects the colon) and I take a sulfa drug to keep the condition under control. My gastroenterologist keeps me on a Vitamin D supplement that replaces the substance that the sulfa drug leaches out of my body. I have to have a blood test every six months (at least, I think that’s what it’s for) and a colonoscopy every three years. The important point is that this is on the orders of my doctor. I don’t take Vitamin D just for random reasons. This pseudoscientific rot is in the same category as stuffing jade eggs up your vagina.

  9. anat says

    Some of us have indoor jobs and commute in the dark several months of the year. Also have cloudy weather 9-10 months of the year. Or have to avoid the sun due to cancer risk. And stopped drinking milk for various reasons. Also, ability to absorb vitamin D from food varies. So there are plenty of reasons that one might be truly vitamin D deficient, and it would be reasonable to seek testing. The problem is how to define sufficient vitamin D levels.

  10. abusedbypenguins says

    The VA sends me vitamin D because they say it helps the synthroid they send me for my thyroid problem.

  11. Snidely W says

    Well, when you set to marketing your arachnoproduct you should be sure to mention the following about those Cambodians:
    They live extraordinarily long lives.
    They never get cancer.
    Autism is unknown among them.
    And they never need those boner pills.
    You can send me my 10% to my PayPal account.

  12. tbp1 says

    “I’ve seen this phenomenon in educated people before: they latch onto one explanation for something, and suddenly they apply it to everything, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof, and insist that it is the One True Theory, and all must bow before it.”

    I see this in my field all the time. Someone comes across something with good explanatory power for certain things, and leaps from there to assuming it can explain everything. I call it “true believer-ism.” I imagine it happens in many, maybe most, disciplines, scientific and otherwise.

  13. pedantik says

    Who would buy arachnids from Gwyneth? I’d be concerned that they came from the same place as her jade eggs.

  14. twotwocents says

    Hi, new here. Keen follower of your great blog.
    First time I felt like I should comment.
    The vitamin D thing is completely blown out of proportion, I agree.
    But two pieces of info made me look further into it:
    1. Hunter gatherer Vitamin D levels are way higher than Westener levels
    Luxwolda, M. F., Kuipers, R. S., Kema, I. P., Dijck-Brouwer, D. J., & Muskiet, F. A. (2012). Traditionally living populations in East Africa have a mean serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration of 115 nmol/l. British Journal of Nutrition, 108(9), 1557-1561.
    (this doesnt prove that this is better, but it makes you think, doesnt it? Note that the lowest of the recorded levels for these hunter gatherers was much much higher than what is conceived in the west as deficiency)
    2. Turns out, th current recommendations are based on bad stats. This has now been corrected, namy in:
    Veugelers, P. J., & Ekwaru, J. P. (2014). A statistical error in the estimation of the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin D. Nutrients, 6(10), 4472-4475.
    So, together these two pieces of research made me take some vitamind D, too, just so that it brings me at least within the range of hunter gatherers. Its the only nutrient supplement I take, and I only take it in Winter (when the local sunlight doesnt allow the locals like me to produce any vitamin D).
    So, sorry, but in this case you have been somewhat wrong to dismiss something (though I agree that many present the story idiotically; but on should not make the mistake to judge the truth by the clothes of the messenger).

  15. graham says

    Whilst worrying about a deficiency, people might also give some thought to the possibility of having too much. From the UK NHS web-site:

    “Taking too many vitamin D supplements over a long period of time can cause too much calcium to build up in the body (hypercalcaemia). This can weaken the bones and damage the kidneys and the heart. If you choose to take vitamin D supplements, 10mcg a day will be enough for most people. Don’t take more than 100mcg of vitamin D a day as it could be harmful. This applies to adults, including pregnant and breastfeeding women and the elderly, and children aged 11-17 years.
    Children aged 1-10 years shouldn’t have more than 50mcg a day. Infants under 12 months shouldn’t have more than 25mcg a day.
    Some people have medical conditions that mean they may not be able to safely take as much. If in doubt, you should consult your doctor.”

  16. zoniedude says

    You hang your argument on milk having vitamin D, but I’m lactose intolerant and don’t drink milk. How about another source? I don’t eat fish either. Maybe the sun?

  17. Rich Woods says

    Except that inventing imaginary problems and selling the cure is extremely profitable.

    A strategy copied directly from religion.

  18. stillacrazycanuck says

    I was very disappointed to read the follow-up to the title but, on reflection perhaps not. I have identified a niche for a particular supplement and, while I could market it myself, PZ’s reputation would undoubtedly justify my giving him a piece of the action.

    Squid extract….either from their arms, tentacles or brains (the latter probably more marketable…everyone’s eaten calamari so we need a gimmick’

    ‘Lacking dexterity?? Experiencing fine motor control issues in your hands??? Hey, even restless leg syndrome!!!! Imagine being able to control and use, with perfection, up to ten arms at a time (poetic licence…who knows the difference between arms and tentacles anyway?).

    We can help….scientists have discovered the brain chemistry that allows squids such perfect function!!!! Now, for less than the cost of a single cup of coffee a day, you can benefit from this research! And, best of all, your purchase of this amazing supplement will allow us to improve the habitat for squids (note the plural s here) around the world!!* **

    ‘allow’ does not mean ‘shall’. All financial decisions are entirely at our discretion, but you can let yourself feel good thoughts by picturing us helping foster squid homes.

    ** research shows that the semi-random use of extra !!!s and ???s enhances the results of advertising such as this….but you never read the fine print anyway, do you?????

  19. dianne says

    To the best of my knowledge (and I am by no means an expert), there is some evidence that low vitamin D levels are correlated with worse outcomes for some conditions. Colon cancer comes to mind. However, there is little, if any, evidence that vitamin D supplements help improve outcomes or prevent development of any disease besides bone conditions (again with the caveat that I am not an expert). I suspect that the correlation is not causative. Want to do a trial to see if and how vit D helps? Fine. But routine supplementation is not well justified.

  20. says

    I gotta start hawking a supplement of my own

    Well, you could always take a page out of Aleister Crowley’s book and start shilling “longevity” pills made from your own semen. Given that he managed to reach a respectable 72 years of age despite a daily intake of heroin and cocaine that would flatten a horse, he might have been onto something… assuming he was on the pills himself, of course.

    Given Ms Paltrow’s fascination with that part of the human body, she could only approve.

  21. says

    Surely what you need is a “Squid Ink Supplement” (harvested ethically of course) to correct skin whiteness. It prevents sunburn when you strut about nearly naked out on the prairie hunting some poor animal for a wall trophy.

  22. pilgham says

    I thought the 8 spiders a year was an estimate from what is in canned tomato sauce. Beans too I assume. You’re too late. Just eat more pizza.

  23. says

    Isn’t it obvious? A diet deficient in spider consumption leads to people taking Paltrow’s woo seriously. I’m sure if you did some research you’d find very few Cambodians have ever purchased anything promoted by Goop.

  24. karmacat says

    Some studies show that having enough vitamin D lowers the risk of getting certain cancers. There are still not enough studies yet showing a connection. As long as you are not taking to much vitamin D, the risk of supplemental vitamin D is low and the benefits may be significant. Low vitamin D levels may also affect one’s energy level but this has not been proven so you have to take this with a grain of salt. Doctors are recommending people take extra vitamin D but only if the levels are low. Because taking too much vitamin D can affect your bones.

  25. karmacat says

    According to the NIH cancer website, 80% of Americans have enough vitamin D levels in their blood. So it is just 20% who may not be getting enough vitamin D

  26. wzrd1 says

    Oddly, my wife is vitamin D deficient, as reported by the blood work that her orthopedist had ordered. He directed us to pick up some vitamin D and her to get at least 10 minutes of direct sunlight outside per day.
    He was also working on getting the insurance company to bless immune modulating therapy, where her osteoclasts would be suppressed, as she have severe osteoporosis – complete with six thoracic vertebrae fractured. Plus calcium supplements.
    And maybe, just maybe her bone density would be good enough to let the neurosurgeon operate on the L5-S1 disc that is crushing her cauda equina.
    All that and more courtesy of PCOS.

    I’m fortunate in that I’m out in the sun for more than 10 minutes each day and tan well, so I don’t burn. My bone density is quite good.

    Our daughters both are showing signs of osteoporosis and they’re in their mid-30’s. But, unlike myself or my wife, they tan like gasoline tans before a blow torch. They both also suffer from PCOS.
    Fortunately, there is a treatment on the horizon.

  27. Chris Capoccia says

    vitamin d & calcium are proven effective treatments for osteopenia with no history of fractures and there is plenty of research about giving to men & women above 65 to reduce fractures. but medically indicated treatment is completely different than passing out vitamins to everyone. a little extra in a healthy person probably won’t cause them any problems except a thinner wallet, but it won’t cure any either. it is possible to take a toxic level of vitamins, but the safe range is usually pretty broad and doesn’t happen that often

  28. says

    You hang your argument on milk having vitamin D, but I’m lactose intolerant and don’t drink milk. How about another source? I don’t eat fish either. Maybe the sun?

    I’m a vegan and drink almond-coconut milk, and it’s also fortified with vitamin D. I believe this is true of many/most soy, almond, and other non-dairy milks (read the label). Also mushrooms (apparently it helps to put them in the sun?!) and, yes, sun.

  29. zetopan says

    Considering all of the benefits of 10 armed Squid extract, just think of the even superior benefits of the approximately 90 limbed chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilius). And I only require a 5% royalty on the sales.

  30. jack16 says

    First . . . For any supplement check with your Doctor first.
    I’ve been supplementing with D3 for years and think it makes me cold (rinovirus) resistant. My last cold was three years ago. There have been several times when I thought a cold was starting and the next day the symptoms were gone. I increase the dosage when tests show the level is on the low side. I’m presently taking seven thousand five hundred units a day.

  31. jd142 says

    You’d be surprised the number of food items that say ‘Fortified with Vitamins’ but when you look more closely, they don’t include Vitamin D. Milk is about the only thing that has Vitamin D, and I can’t stand the taste. Cheese is not fortified though.

    Some of us, especially people of Scandinavian descent who don’t eat lutefisk, don’t convert sunlight into vitamin D correctly. I actually had nerve problems that spread from my feet up to my waist and were spreading up to my chest. Got so bad I couldn’t feel my feet sometimes. First doctor ran lots of tests, including checking that the nerves in my feet were working. It was cool to listen to the sound of my nerves as they did one test, but he couldn’t figure out what was happening.

    Then I got a new doctor who tested and she found out I was deficient in vitamin D. She prescribed something like 10 or 100 times the normal dose for a week. After the second day the tingling and numbness had retreated to my knees. Now I just have permanent tingling/numbness below my ankles. If you’ve ever seen the episode of All Creatures Great and Small where he cures a sheep, it was almost that fast.

    I continue to take ‘normal’ vitamin D supplements because I don’t want the symptoms to return.

    I still think vitamins are incredibly over used and over hyped, but it is cases like mine that make people take vitamins when they really don’t need to.

  32. lotharloo says

    1) Milk is not fortified in all countries.
    2) If you have dark skin and you are not working outside, probably you need to take supplements.
    3)I searched a little bit but it is not clear how much sun exposure you need to get enough Vitamin D. It’s all very complicated.

  33. ajbjasus says

    My wife had hip surgery from one of the world’s leading specialists – he said the only supplement he insists his family take is liquid vitamin d. It’s as cheap as chips so we have followed his suggestion. Haven’t done a controlled experiment, but certainly no ill effects !

  34. davidnangle says

    Those nocturnal spider numbers are definitely thrown off, statistically, by Australians. Those people are in a titanic struggle for life even in their sleep.

  35. jd142 says

    @41 – According to my doctor, it shouldn’t take much sun exposure. I’m outside about 45 minutes a day, 5 times a week, minimum and she said that should have done it. Even though I’m wearing long sleeve shirts because it is over my lunch hour and sunscreen. Just the exposure on my face should have been enough. And then there’s mowing the lawn, getting the mail, etc., so half an hour a day should have done it.

    Looking through this thread, these are exactly the sort of anecdotal ‘it happened to me’ stories that keep the vitamin people in business. It’s just like smoking. My father and his father were both 2 pack a day smokers. My father died of lung cancer around 74 years old; his father never got cancer and lived into his 80’s(maybe even 90) and essentially just wore out. For every 1 guy who smokes until he’s 100 and never coughs there are 100 who die young from cancer. But every smoker focuses on the ones who live to 100. Guess which stories Philip Morris likes to tell? :)

  36. Ragutis says

    This is anecdotal, but I do remember hearing about an old woman who swallowed a fly. Apparently eating a spider cleared the whole thing up, though she did experience some difficulties with successive treatments.

  37. daved says

    Supplemental vitamin D is a good idea if you’re taking, say, prednisone, which can do a real number on your bones.
    However, as another poster indirectly pointed out, taking lots of calcium and vitamin D increases your risk of kidney stones.

  38. JustaTech says

    Some orange juice is also fortified with vitamin D, if you don’t drink milk or spend a lot of time outside without sunscreen.

  39. photoreceptor says

    As a scientist myself, I have often wondered what happens to nocturnal animals and fur-covered mammals (especially the two together like rats and mice), they don’t get enough sunlight through to the skin (except around their noses). They don’t seem to have Vit D problems, so I guess it all comes from the diet?

  40. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    “I’ve seen this phenomenon in educated people before: they latch onto one explanation for something, and suddenly they apply it to everything, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof, and insist that it is the One True Theory…”

    Classic case in point, Linus Pauling and Vitamin C.

  41. Marissa van Eck says

    Sorry to bump this one from almost a week ago, but I have to put this in:

    DO NOT take Vit D and/or calcium without magnesium to go with it! Vitamin D3’s official name is cholecalciferol (bile + calcium + carrier) and its structure makes it a steroid hormone. It is implicated in shuttling calcium around the body, among other things. Magnesium and calcium balance one another out, in my understanding, and if you want the calcium in your bones rather than in your bloodstream gunking up your arteries and veins, you need magnesium with it in approximately a 2:1 ratio.

    I’m told Vit K2 (menaquinone) is also important to this process via its activation of osteocalcin, and that one reason warfarin is so bad for the heart and bones is its pharmacodynamics is essentially Vit K antagonism.