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When It Comes to Good Health, Vitamin D Delivers

October 28, 2009

woman in sun

According to conventional wisdom, we should be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true. But vitamin D is shaping up as an exception to that rule — and a true superstar among nutrients. Although it was discovered nearly 100 years ago, vitamin D was long believed to have only one important role – maintaining healthy bones. As a result, it was added to milk in the 1930s, as a way to combat the high incidence of rickets in children – and then pretty much forgotten.

How things change! During the past decade, a steady stream of news from researchers all over the world is proving that vitamin D helps protect us against such serious health concerns as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, several types of cancer (including breast, colon and prostate), diabetes, emotional difficulties, such as depression and bipolar disorder, muscle function and gum health.

And there’s more! Just consider this small sampling of good news from the vitamin D front:

  • Vitamin D supports better brain function in older individuals, according to the findings of a recent clinical trial. Researchers at Tufts University found the best cognitive test scores among subjects with high blood levels of the nutrient. Those with high levels of vitamin D were better at “executive functions,” such as organizing, planning and thinking in the abstract.
  • Vitamin D’s role in how well our muscles operate was underscored by a new study showing that low levels of the nutrient during pregnancy makes a woman four times more likely to have a cesarean section. The same researchers were also struck by separate findings showing that fully three-fourths of the women in the study and their babies had low vitamin D levels, even though they had been taking prenatal vitamins and drinking vitamin D-fortified milk while pregnant. Coincidentally, a new study from Turkey found that infants with low vitamin D levels are more vulnerable to developing respiratory infections.
  • Add prostate cancer to the list of cancers vitamin D may help protect against. Findings reported in the British Journal of Cancer show that the disease resulted in six times fewer fatalities for men with the most vitamin D in their bodies when compared to men with lower levels.
  • There’s more news on the cancer front, too. A recent review of research involving vitamin D, cancer and sunlight (ultraviolet B or UVB) concluded that sun-associated vitamin D was linked to lower levels of colon and breast cancers, as well as kidney and ovarian cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

What’s the sunlight connection? Our bodies can produce vitamin D on their own when exposed to sunlight. Sounds simple, right? Even though making that happen only takes about 20 minutes of daily sun exposure (and please work up to that amount gradually, to avoid burning), there are actually a few factors that may interfere. First, the skin must be free of sunscreen, sun blocks and clothing, which interfere with the process.

Second, the sunlight-vitamin D conversion process is not nearly as effective for people of color. Third, age plays a role; individuals over age 50 are not efficient converters, so even with proper sun exposure, they’re likely to be deficient in the nutrient.

Finally, there’s geography. Sunlight during winter months is not intense enough in northern areas. If we drew a line from Los Angeles to Atlanta, people living in the zone above the line would not be getting adequate sun, so no amount of sun exposure will help.

How many people are at risk from low vitamin D levels? The short answer is millions! One doctor I work with says that 90 percent of her patients are getting too little of this important nutrient, and she’s based in Southern California! Similar figures were found in a new analysis of federal government health data; researchers reported too little vitamin D in three-fourths of American surveyed.  Just twenty years ago, that figure was strikingly lower — only one half of the population was deficient in vitamin D.

A simple blood test is all that’s required to determine your vitamin D level, and ideally it should be done annually. Your physician can recommend appropriate supplements of vitamin D3, the preferred form.

Supplements are inexpensive and yes, they probably are necessary. A few foods – salmon, sardines, mackerel and fortified milk — are helpful when it comes to increasing vitamin D intake. But even if you’re a fish fan or drink milk regularly, it’s difficult to obtain the daily dose of 1,000 to 2,000 IU or more recommended by many health authorities just from food.

Even the conservative federal government guidelines — 200 IU for adults up to age 50, 400 IU between 51 and 70 and 800 IU for those 71 and up — are unlikely to be achieved only through diet. And be aware that the adult doses are currently under review, since so many authorities believe they are inadequate. Meanwhile; the American Academy of Pediatrics recently upped its recommendation for children from 200 IU to 400 IU daily.

One caution: As with most things in life, moderation is a worthy goal. Baking in the sun without sunscreen for hours or taking mega-doses of supplements are not good ways to fortify your body with vitamin D. Follow the experts’ guidelines, enjoy some time in the sun, eat well and provide your body with reasonable amounts of the supplements it needs to work best – and you will notice a difference in your health!

Need more information? The Vitamin D Council has a great collection of free articles and other resources.

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