Taking Vitamin D to Defy Death?

Taking Vitamin D to Defy Death?

Vitamin D is still making headlines in the U.S. after a government panel this month voted against widespread testing of healthy Americans’ blood levels of the nutrient, which has long been thought of as one that may help protect against chronic disease.

Often called the “sunshine” vitamin because one 15-minute walk on a sunny day without sunscreen can typically provide an entire day’s worth, vitamin D is necessary to fight disease. Being low in the nutrient is now believed to play a significant role in the progression of many diseases from osteoporosis and heart disease to multiple sclerosis and cancer. Vitamin D deficiencies may even increase a person’s risk of developing an infectious disease, such as tuberculosis or influenza, or reduce immune system function.

Why Is Vitamin D Important?

Adequate levels of vitamin D — up to 4,000 International Units (IU) daily — is considered safe, but for years, physicians advocated for much lower daily doses, such as those in the 200 to 400 IU range, because the nutrient can be deadly upon overdose. Healthy blood levels of vitamin D help the body absorb and retain calcium for bone density health and strength, reduce the progression of chronic disease, and even control levels of infection.

Even proponents who advocate getting vitamins from healthy foods as opposed to supplements can now see the need for vitamin D supplementation because too few foods contain the nutrient. Today’s most prevalent food sources of vitamin D are artificially fortified with the supplement, such as dairy products and breakfast cereals. Salmon and tuna are also good natural sources.

Could You Be Deficient?  

More than two-thirds of Americans may be significantly deficient in vitamin D because of poor diet, spending too much time inside, or piling on too much sunscreen, which can reduce the body’s ability to produce vitamin D by as much as 90 percent according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (Anyone who is significantly obese may also not be able to naturally process vitamin D from the sun, which may be a contributing factor to Americans’ chronically low levels.) People who live far from the equator, such as Americans in the northern part of the country, cannot depend on sunlight as a vitamin D source, especially during the fall and winter months, because the sun’s rays are too weak.

Despite a slew of studies in recent years that make many a claim about the importance of a consistent level of vitamin D in the body, the jury is still out as to whether or not there is a definitive link between low blood levels of vitamin D that can lead to chronic disease or if deficiencies of the vitamin are just another result of poor lifestyle choices, like cigarette smoking and obesity, which also results in depletion of the vitamin in the blood as well as systemic disease and premature death rates.

But just this month, another vitamin D study published by researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, found that participants were “twice as likely to die prematurely as people with higher blood levels of vitamin D.”

Those findings, which were published in the American Journal of Public Health, were based on a review of 32 previously published studies that analyzed vitamin D blood levels and human mortality rates in more than 565,000 participants in 14 countries.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Cedric Garland, Ph.D. and professor in the Department of Family and Preventative Medicine at UC San Diego, noted that “the blood level amount of vitamin D associated with about half of the death rate was 30 ng/ml” — when physicians have long been aware that a majority of the U.S. population has a vitamin D level that falls below that minimum.

To Supplement or Not to Supplement

Physicians expect patients to ask their doctors if they should be taking vitamin D supplements and have their blood levels checked if they suspect they are deficient. While another study author, Heather Hofflich, DO, professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine, says that up to 4,000 IU of vitamin D per day is safe, she recommends considering even higher doses for some patients under medical supervision. Examples of typical patients in need of substantially more vitamin D include those battling cancer or trying to control existing bone disease.