Vitamin D and Your Health: More Than Just a Supplement
Updated: Apr 28
Vitamin D Deficiency: A Global Concern
If you live north of the line connecting San Francisco to Philadelphia and Athens to Beijing, odds are that you don’t get enough vitamin D. The same holds true if you don’t get outside for at least a 15-minute daily walk in the sun. African-Americans and others with dark skin, as well as older individuals, tend to have much lower levels of vitamin D, as do people who are overweight or obese.
Worldwide, an estimated 1 billion people have inadequate levels of vitamin D in their blood, and deficiencies can be found in all ethnicities and age groups. Indeed, in industrialized countries, doctors are even seeing the resurgence of rickets, the bone-weakening disease that had been largely eradicated through vitamin D fortification.
Why are these widespread vitamin D deficiencies of such great concern? Because research conducted over the past decade suggests that vitamin D plays a much broader disease-fighting role than once thought.
Being “D-ficient” may increase the risk of a host of chronic diseases, such as osteoporosis, heart disease, some cancers, and multiple sclerosis, as well as infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and even the seasonal flu.
Currently, there’s scientific debate about how much vitamin D people need each day. The Institute of Medicine, in a long-awaited report released on November 30, 2010 recommends tripling the daily vitamin D intake for children and adults in the U.S. and Canada, to 600 IU per day. The report also recognized the safety of vitamin D by increasing the upper limit from 2,000 to 4,000 IU per day, and acknowledged that even at 4,000 IU per day, there was no good evidence of harm. The new guidelines, however, are overly conservative about the recommended intake, and they do not give enough weight to some of the latest science on vitamin D and health. For bone health and chronic disease prevention, many people are likely to need more vitamin D than even these new government guidelines recommend.
Vitamin D Sources and Function
Vitamin D is both a nutrient we eat and a hormone our bodies make. Few foods are naturally rich in vitamin D, so the biggest dietary sources of vitamin D are fortified foods and vitamin supplements. Good sources include dairy products and breakfast cereals (both of which are fortified with vitamin D), and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna.
For most people, the best way to get enough vitamin D is taking a supplement, but the level in most multivitamins (400 IU) is too low. Encouragingly, some manufacturers have begun adding 800 or 1,000 IU of vitamin D to their standard multivitamin preparations. If the multivitamin you take does not have 1,000 IU of vitamin D, you may want to consider adding a separate vitamin D supplement, especially if you don’t spend much time in the sun. Talk to your healthcare provider.
Two forms of vitamin D are used in supplements: vitamin D2 (“ergocalciferol,” or pre-vitamin D) and vitamin D3 (“cholecalciferol”). Vitamin D3 is chemically indistinguishable from the form of vitamin D produced in the body.
The body also manufactures vitamin D from cholesterol, through a process triggered by the action of sunlight on skin, hence its nickname, “the sunshine vitamin.” Yet some people do not make enough vitamin D from the sun, among them, people who have a darker skin tone, who are overweight, who are older, and who cover up when they are in the sun.
Correctly applied sunscreen reduces our ability to absorb vitamin D by more than 90 percent. And not all sunlight is created equal: The sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays—the so-called “tanning” rays, and the rays that trigger the skin to produce vitamin D—are stronger near the equator and weaker at higher latitudes. So in the fall and winter, people who live at higher latitudes (in the northern U.S. and Europe, for example) can’t make much if any vitamin D from the sun.
Vitamin D and Bone and Muscle Strength
Several studies link low vitamin D levels with an increased risk of fractures in older adults, and they suggest that vitamin D supplementation may prevent such fractures—as long as it is taken in a high enough dose.
A summary of the evidence comes from a combined analysis of 12 fracture prevention trials that included more than 40,000 elderly people, most of them women. Researchers found that high intakes of vitamin D supplements—of about 800 IU per day—reduced hip and non-spine fractures by 20 percent, while lower intakes (400 IU or less) failed to offer any fracture prevention benefit.
Vitamin D may also help increase muscle strength, which in turn helps to prevent falls, a common problem that leads to substantial disability and death in older people. Once again, vitamin D dose matters: A combined analysis of multiple studies found that taking 700 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day lowered the risk of falls by 19 percent, but taking 200 to 600 IU per day did not offer any such protection.
A recent vitamin D trial drew headlines for its unexpected finding that a very high dose of vitamin D increased fracture and fall risk in older women. The trial’s vitamin D dose—500,000 IU taken in a once-a-year pill—was much higher than previously tested in an annual regimen. After up to 5 years of treatment, women in the vitamin D group had a 15 percent higher fall risk and a 26 percent higher fracture risk than women who received the placebo.
It’s possible that giving the vitamin D in one large dose, rather than in several doses spread throughout the year, led to the increased risk. The study authors note that only one other study—also a high-dose, once-a-year regimen—found vitamin D to increase fracture risk; no other studies have found vitamin D to increase the risk of falls. Furthermore, there’s strong evidence that more moderate doses of vitamin D taken daily or weekly protect against fractures and falls—and are safe.
So what is the significance of this study for people who want to take vitamin D supplements? A reasonable conclusion would be to continue taking moderate doses of vitamin D regularly, since these have a strong safety record, but to avoid extremely high single doses. This recent finding does present a challenge to scientists who will work to understand why the extreme single dose appears to have adverse effects.
Vitamin D and Immune Function
Vitamin D’s role in regulating the immune system has led scientists to explore two parallel research paths: Does vitamin D deficiency contribute to the development of multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and other so-called “autoimmune” diseases, where the body’s immune system attacks its own organs and tissues? And could vitamin D supplements help boost our body’s defenses to fight infectious disease, such as tuberculosis and seasonal flu? This is a hot research area and more findings will be emerging.
Vitamin D and Multiple Sclerosis: Multiple sclerosis (MS) rates are much higher far north (or far south) of the equator than in sunnier climes, and researchers suspect that chronic vitamin D deficiencies may be one reason why. One prospective study to look at this question found that among white men and women, those with the highest vitamin D blood levels had a 62 percent lower risk of developing MS than those with the lowest vitamin D levels. The study didn’t find this effect among black men and women, most likely because there were fewer black study participants and most of them had low vitamin D levels, making it harder to find any link between vitamin D and MS if one exists.
Vitamin D and Type 1 Diabetes: Type 1 diabetes is another disease that varies with geography—a child in Finland is about 400 times more likely to develop it than a child in Venezuela. Evidence that vitamin D may play a role in preventing type 1 diabetes comes from a 30-year study that followed more than 10,000 Finnish children from birth: Children who regularly received vitamin D supplements during infancy had a nearly 90 percent lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes than those who did not receive supplements. Other European case-control studies, when analyzed together, also suggest that vitamin D may help protect against type 1 diabetes. No randomized controlled trials have tested this notion, and it is not clear that they would be possible to conduct.
Vitamin D, the Flu, and the Common Cold: The flu virus wreaks the most havoc in the winter, abating in the summer months. This seasonality led a British doctor to hypothesize that a sunlight-related “seasonal stimulus” triggered influenza outbreaks. More than 20 years after this initial hypothesis, several scientists published a paper suggesting that vitamin D may be the seasonal stimulus. Among the evidence they cite:
Vitamin D levels are lowest in the winter months.
The active form of vitamin D tempers the damaging inflammatory response of some white blood cells, while it also boosts immune cells’ production of microbe-fighting proteins.
Children who have vitamin D-deficiency rickets are more likely to get respiratory infections, while children exposed to sunlight seem to have fewer respiratory infections.
Adults who have low vitamin D levels are more likely to report having had a recent cough, cold, or upper respiratory tract infection.
A recent randomized controlled trial in Japanese school children tested whether taking daily vitamin D supplements would prevent seasonal flu. The trial followed nearly 340 children for four months during the height of the winter flu season. Half of the study participants received pills that contained 1,200 IU of vitamin D; the other half received placebo pills. Researchers found that type A influenza rates in the vitamin D group were about 40 percent lower than in the placebo group; there was no significant difference in type B influenza rates. This was a small but promising study, and more research is needed before we can definitively say that vitamin D protects against the flu. But don’t skip your flu shot, even if vitamin D has some benefit.
The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. Actify Physiotherapy and Dr. Marcia C. Perretto do not recommend or endorse any products.
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