Vitamin D Fights Cancer--and That's Not All
A single nutrient that keeps bones strong, wards off cancer, and protects against tuberculosis, diabetes, colds, and the flu. Sound too good to be true? There's more: It's free. But you're almost certainly not getting enough.
Research on vitamin D has flooded out over the past few months, linking a growing array of health ills to low levels of the nutrient. Scientists now know that the vitamin, which is naturally produced in skin exposed to the sun's ultraviolet rays, binds to cell receptors throughout the body and that a lack can cause various systems to malfunction. This week, a study of nearly 1,200 postmenopausal women found that those who took supplements containing 1,100 international units of vitamin D and 1,400 milligrams of calcium for four years had a 60 percent decrease in their overall cancer risk when compared with those who took placebos; those who took both vitamin D and calcium had a greater reduced risk than those who took calcium alone."This clinical trial strongly supports the observational studies that have associated sunlight and vitamin D levels with a lower risk of cancer," says study leader Joan Lappe, a professor of nursing and medicine at CreightonUniversity in Nebraska.
In December,University of Pittsburgh researchers reported that a D deficiency doubles the risk of dangerous hypertension during pregnancy, since the nutrient helps control a hormone affecting blood pressure. In March of 2006, a study examining how the vitamin affects the pancreas's release of insulin found the risk of diabetes to be onethird lower in people with the highest levels than in those getting the least. "The vitamin D story is becoming clear. I think it's very exciting," says Robert Heaney, a professor of medicine at Creighton and coauthor of the new study who, like many researchers, now thinks supplements are a good idea.
Prior to the industrial revolution, humans had no trouble getting an abundance of the sunshine vitamin; a mere 10 to 15 minutes outdoors at midday gives the average fair-skinned person 10,000 international units. That's far above the government's dietary recommendations of 200 IUs a day up to age 50, 400 IUs to age 70, and 600 IUs over 70. But most people nowadays spend little time outdoors, and food sources such as milk and salmon contain relatively modest amounts. What's more, the rash of new findings suggests to the experts that the guidelines are way too low. "There's no one working in the field who thinks these levels still make sense," says Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at HarvardUniversity whose recent studies have focused on the connection between vitamin D and cancer.
Many people run particularly short during the winter, says vitamin D researcher Michael Holick, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. That's because anyone living north of Atlanta makes little, if any, from the sun when the UV rays fall at too low an angle to penetrate the atmosphere.
Beyond bones. Vitamin D is best known for promoting bone health. It was first added to the milk supply in the 1930s to prevent the bone-deforming disease rickets, and it defends against osteoporosis by triggering the absorption of calcium into bone cells. New evidence indicates that many people suffering symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia actually have a painful softening of the bones that is caused by a D deficiency.