For those of us living in the Northwest where sunlight is scarce many months of the year it is important to understand vitamin D. Unlike other vitamins, our bodies can make Vitamin D as a result of exposure to sunlight (as long as the necessary starting materials are present, such as cholesterol - see future article about why cholesterol is good for you!!). Summertime sun exposure on the face, arms and hands around noon for 5 to 15 minutes a few times a week without sunscreen for light skinned people provides sufficient vitamin D for our bodies needs. Vitamin D is also contained in a few foods, including oily fish, cod liver oil, butter, and egg yolks.
Vitamin D is essential for the processing of calcium and is well known for its function in bone health. Vitamin D affects almost every tissue in the body and we are discovering the many ways that vitamin D influences our health. Vitamin D is a critical hormone that plays a role in regulating cell growth, the immune system, blood pressure, insulin production, brain chemicals and bone health. Vitamin D is one of the body's many control systems. It acts like an emergency brake that helps stop cells from misbehaving, as immune cells can do when they cause autoimmune diseases like MS, and as cells do when they turn cancerous. So not only does vitamin D deficiency have a link to osteoporosis but also to many chronic diseases such as cancer (breast, ovarian, colon, pancreatic and prostate), chronic pain, weakness, chronic fatigue, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, hypertension, depression, heart disease, stroke, lung function, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, tuberculosis, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, osteoarthritis, birth defects and periodontal disease.
Studies demonstrated that lack of vitamin D accounts for 45,000 cancer deaths annually and 165,000 new cancer cases. Women over the age of 60 with the highest vitamin D blood levels have 1/2 the chance of developing colorectal cancer compared to women with the lowest levels. Women with the lowest vitamin D intake were four times more likely to develop abnormalities on mammography than were women with the highest intake. New research also shows that low serum levels of vitamin D in the body can make elderly persons more susceptible to falls because low levels of vitamin D are associated with low physical performance. One study found that infants receiving sufficient vitamin D daily were protected from developing Type 1 diabetes. Five wheelchair bound patients were told their pain and muscle weakness would only get worse and they would likely remain in wheelchairs the rest of their lives. They decided to take large doses of vitamin D and in 4 to 6 weeks they were up and about, saying goodbye to their wheelchairs and back to normal activities, pain free. One doctor reported on a patient with chest pain who had multiple balloon angioplasties and his pain never went away. He also had surgery for low back pain that also did not help. The doctor than measured his vitamin D level and it was near zero. His chest and low back pain were not due to cardiac or spinal disease, but to low vitamin D, and when he was put on vitamin D, he got much better. They had spent over $200,000 on medical expenses to then find out that he was only in need of a very inexpensive vitamin.
It was discovered that the higher up that you live, the less likely you are to die from heart disease. It was also seen that long-lived communities are all at high altitudes. There is also a strong seasonal variation in blood clots in that they are much less common in the summer, when vitamin D levels are higher.
Vitamin D is higher in men than in women, is lower in obese people, and declines with age. It is also lower in smokers compared to non-smokers. Dark skinned people have the highest risk for vitamin D deficiency because dark skin needs 5 to 10 times more sunlight than white skin to produce the same amount of vitamin D. One study found that 42 percent of African-American women in the U.S. were vitamin D deficient.
The current recommended daily allowances of vitamin D are far lower than the minimum amount necessary for optimum health. You should consult a physician and have your 25 hydroxy vitamin D levels checked before consuming doses greater than the RDA because high levels can elevate calcium levels in the blood, a potentially serious condition that can cause nausea, vomiting, and even death. It is especially easy for children to overdose on vitamin D supplements.
by Laura A. Schissell, ND, DC
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