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Information on the latest vitamin D news and research.

Find out more information on deficiency, supplementation, sun exposure, and how vitamin D relates to your health.

Tanning, vitamin D status, and colds

To my knowledge, the Russians were the first to demonstrate that sunbeds reduced the incidence of respiratory infections. While I have not been able to find all the Russian studies, the several I did find were referenced in our two papers about influenza and vitamin D. I beg the readers pardon to brag a little bit. The first influenza paper our group published, Epidemic Influenza and Vitamin D, is the most cited review paper in the history of the journal Epidemiology and Infection.


Our second influenza paper, On the Epidemiology of Influenza, is the most viewed paper in the history of Virology Journal.


I wish I could say I can report today that scientists have produced lots of new evidence our theory is true, although a recent randomized controlled trial of 4,000 IU/day for a year showed vitamin D reduced colds by 25% and reduced antibiotic use by more than 60%.

What about sunbeds? Has anyone tried to reproduce the Russian’s work? Remember, the Russians used to use sunbeds year around, not just in the winter. That is important as it takes sunbeds several months to get vitamin D levels up to those needed to prevent infection.

Recently, Drs Frank de Gruijl and Stan Pavel of Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands administered a two month course of sunbed exposure, only to find the effect on infection during that two months was minimal.

de Gruijl FR, Pavel S. The effects of a mid-winter 8-week course of sub-sunburn sunbed exposures on tanning, vitamin D status and colds. Photochem Photobiol Sci. 2012 Nov 19;11(12):1848-54.

They also found that 1,000 IU/day in the one third of their 105 young adults had no significant effect on respiratory infections for the two months they administered it, beginning in the middle of winter.

After two months of sunbed use, vitamin D levels rose from 23 ng/ml to 42 ng/ml. The sunbeds they used were effective in tanning the body, so they must have contained a lot of UVA, which is the wavelength that causes tanning but not much vitamin D production. The sunbeds only contained about 1.3% UVB. (Remember, you can get tan and still be vitamin D deficient as UVA wavelength tans you and mostly UVB wavelength triggers vitamin D production.)

The authors conclude,

“One could envisage that maintaining high levels of vitamin D immediately following the summer is most effective against colds, and that correcting a winter low in 25(OH)D while it is developing is not very effective – possibly because the immune system requires time (months?) to become adjusted to a certain vitamin D level.”

That is certainly what we first proposed, that for vitamin D to be effective, it must be given to a deficient population, in high enough doses (5,000 IU/day), for long enough (starting well before winter), so the immune system can begin making the antimicrobial peptides that protect our lungs from respiratory infections.

  About: John Cannell, MD

Dr. John Cannell is founder of the Vitamin D Council. He has written many peer-reviewed papers on vitamin D and speaks frequently across the United States on the subject. Dr. Cannell holds an M.D. and has served the medical field as a general practitioner, emergency physician, and psychiatrist.

5 Responses to Tanning, vitamin D status, and colds

  1. Yes, sunbeds primarily put out UVA, which does not produce Vitamin D.

    You can buy UVB lamps, which are made to produce vitamin D, and provide little if any tanning.

    I purchased a UVB lamp which provides at least 1,000 IU per 5 minutes.

    Details and photos at http://is.gd/Dlamps

    Note1: The lamp may generate 5X as much because it has little UVA which destroys vitamin D)

    Note2: When UV light was originally used to create vitamin D, people happened to notice that the UV light also caused a tan. This caused the creation of the sunbed industry. The sunbed industry then changed the spectrum so as to maximize the tan. This change resulted in minimizing the vitamin D produced.

  2. kenmerrimanmd says:

    this is of interest since Dr Cannell recommends “low pressure” tanning beds for vit D production

    I believe the quote was ~ equal to sunlight at the equator at 5000 ft elevation at about midday

    so now I am once again a bit confused ( which seems to be my usual state lately)

  3. Brant Cebulla says:

    Ken, the topic can get confusing quickly.

    Both UVA and UVB will cause a tanning effect, though through different mechanisms which I won’t get into detail about. Basically, UVB will cause more of sunburn effect than UVA, as it’s a more intense, shorter wave. UVA will cause more of a tanning effect, as it’s less intense, a longer wave and penetrates the skin more deeply.

    UVB helps you produce vitamin D, UVA does not (for the most part).

    Some sunbed manufacturers produce high-intensity UVA beds to induce a tanning effect. These beds output up to ten times the amount of UVA the sun does. On the other hand, some sunbed manufacturers produce low-intensity UVB-UVA beds that mimic the sun. Your skin responds to these much like it does the sun: lots of vitamin D production, little tanning effect (but some) and if you exposed for too much, you would burn.

    Let me know if you have more questions. You may find this old blog of mine interesting: http://blog.vitamindcouncil.org/2012/04/27/how-do-we-measure-sun-exposure/

  4. Mike_Hinton says:

    This makes sense to me. I’ve only been on Vitamin D since August 2012. And only been above 60 ng/ml since September, but it took about 4 months (which means a couple weeks ago) for me to start physically feeling the benefits. I haven’t gotten sick yet, but I was sick rarely to begin with. I hope I’m sick even more rarely now, with baby on the way.

  5. Rebecca Oshiro says:

    Maybe vitamin D really doesn’t prevent colds, much like the previous JAMA article suggested. However, I would like to see more research on vitamin D preventing the flu. As stated previously, my experience with 4,000 IU/day has been that I still get colds 1-2 times per year, but I no longer get the flu. I’ll take that!