Vitamin D’s a Show Off and in the News, Again

April 12, 2016 in Health, Health Claims, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

About sixteen years ago I moved from southern California to the mountain west. There are many things I love about the mountain west, most especially my husband and family, the beauty of the mountains and the great expansive views out over the valley and lake to other mountains. But there is one thing that I’ve never fully embraced – the cold of winter. In California, I gardened much of the year and that’s where I got the nickname ‘garden lady.’ But in Utah, where the winters are snowy (Beautiful, but cold.) and sometimes get below zero Fahrenheit, I take the lead from hibernating animals. I’m not perfect at hibernating, but I don’t go out any more than necessary. My husband retrieves the mail and newspapers and I happily stay all hunkered down in the warmth, views and beauty of our home; unless I have to go out all bundled up for shopping or social obligations. No skiing for this native of southern California.

It seems like an ideal resolution for someone who does not enjoy cold air. But then there is the problem of not being out in the sun. Actually, at this latitude (40 degrees north) it doesn’t make a big difference anyway. If we draw an invisible line between the California-Oregon border and Boston, all the places north of that line are not very effective for synthesizing vitamin D on our skin. Hey, if you’re in a heavy coat, would it really matter? So, where I live is 2 degrees south of that line at best. The point is that if you live north of that line, or even south and stay inside a lot, you should consider the possibility that you’re not making enough vitamin D. There are many reasons for not getting enough sun-on-skin to make vitamin D. You might be a shut-in; someone who is faithful at wearing sun protection (both clothing and sunscreen). You might be a person not able to be outside or who cannot stand much heat or cold, or you might work many hours inside and come out when the sun is shadowed or too far down to do more than glance off your skin.

I always remind people when sharing information about vitamin D, and I will do it again here; it is technically not a vitamin. I’ve even had MDs tell me; “That’s crazy.” But the fact is that it is technically a hormone; made in one place in the body – to be used in another place of the body. But that really doesn’t matter. It got named “vitamin” a long time ago and it stuck. I personally, like to remember this bit of trivia, because I don’t like the idea of taking vitamins. Yes, I know it’s an odd reason.

New studies about vitamin D seem to be popping up right now. One that is really unusual is a wonderful new study that has been published in PLOS ONE. Cedric Garland DrPH and his late brother began noticing vitamin D deficiency and some cancers clear back in 1980. In this new study, Garland and other researchers at the University of California at San Diego looked at what is the optimal concentration in the blood serum of vitamin D (technically named 25 –hydroxyvitamn D or 25(OH)D).. They found a reduced risk of cancer between two different cohorts (groups of over 1100 women each in different programs). The Lappe group averaged 30 ng/ml vitamin D in their blood, while the GrassrootsHealth group averaged 48. Those with greater than 40 ng/ml had 67% lower risk of all invasive cancers combined, than those with concentrations less than 20ng/ml. Not only that, but they plotted graphs to show that the more you had, the lower the risk for any kind of cancer. (Recall that you can take too much, but these two groups were in controlled settings). Now there’s a heads up to not ignore those Vitamin D numbers on your next blood test. Under 25 beware and take action, over 40 keep doing what you’re doing; in between take modest action, which can be as easy as D3 tablets.

This study was looking at prevention and I always like that. What’s unusual about this particular study is they sought to determine the relationship over measured serum levels of vitamin D and amount of risk reduction for invasive cancers. How much “D” you get from skin varies because skin tones vary and the amount of sun a person gets is another big variable too. Also, the amount of “D” gained in foods varies a lot. So the serum level in a blood test is really the only reliable way to accurately find out how much “D” you have, and thus the risk of cancers you can reduce. It’s wonderful that the researchers focused on the idea of prevention rather than making all our focus on early detection and improving treatment. Not getting cancer and preventing those awful treatments is definitely the best option by far.

Vitamin D is not only for cancer prevention. We used to only focus on the benefits of vitamin D on bones, rickets prevention and on teeth; but there is now such good evidence that it is important in preventing heart attack, stroke, heart failure and cardiovascular death, in addition to all the osteoporosis and other bone issues. Also, there is new evidence that autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis and even in the prevention of Type I Diabetes is linked to vitamin D deficiency. This blog cautions strongly about fake evidence for many supplements, but the evidence for this miss-named hormone, Vitamin D, is getting stronger all the time.

If you want to be sure that you’re taking advantage of the benefits of vitamin D, the first step may be to have a blood test to know where your level is. I believe that it is critical to always remind everyone that vitamin D can be toxic in large doses; so don’t take excessive amounts, especially without follow up blood tests. You can actually get vitamin D in fatty fish (tuna, salmon); egg yolks; and fortified foods. But it may not be easy to get enough in your diet to get your serum vitamin D levels high enough to reduce risk of diseases. So you and your doctor should have a discussion. My new doctor was feeling confident that I would be vitamin D deficient. But to his surprise, I had been taking a D3 supplement daily for some years and my test was close to that desired 40 level. This study supports my decision to reduce risk and take a supplemental vitamin D, while staying snug and warm all winter long.