More News on Vitamin D

Although I have written about the importance of vitamin D before, new information on this vitamin continues to surface. The more we learn about vitamin D, the more we find how many critical roles it plays in the body.

A “Vitamin D Council” was set up as a cooperative effort by a group of research scientists and recently launched a new website that can be found at

Members of this council include Robert Heaney, MD, Professor of Medicine at John A. Creighton University. Dr. Heaney is considered the world’s leading expert on vitamin D, having published over three hundred original papers on this topic.

According to Dr. Heaney, the current government vitamin D recommendations are so low they ensure deficiency for anyone who adheres to them and also avoids the sun. Oddly enough, Dr. Heaney participated in setting up those very recommendations, but later discovered that humans need 4,000 IU of vitamin D per day, not the recommended 400.

The council’s purpose is stated on the front page of their website and reads “To end the needless death and disability from vitamin D deficiency.” Can this be true? Are we dying and becoming disabled from vitamin D deficiency? It would seem so.

The list of possible disorders resulting from vitamin D deficiency is astounding. It includes osteoporosis, heart disease, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, Type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, chronic muscle and bone pain, numerous cancers, chronic fatigue and even depression.

According to experts at the Vitamin D Council, the problem is one of enormous proportions with as many as 70% of American deficient in this vitamin, mainly because of widespread avoidance of the sun. While most of us know that our bodies make vitamin D from the sun, few realize that we cannot synthesize vitamin D if the sun’s rays are filtered by glass or if sunblock is used. In addition, pollutants in the atmosphere and even chlorine in swimming pools may hinder the body’s ability to make vitamin D from the sun.

This situation is particularly severe among older individuals. Studies of nursing homes have found all residents to be deficient in vitamin D. Many of these people suffer from osteoporosis and unremitting pain of osteomalacia, both of which are caused by vitamin D deficiency and can be treated successfully by replenishing this vitamin at a cost of pennies per day. Instead, these patients receive expensive patented drugs that further compromise their health. (J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2003 Nov; 88 (11): 5109-15).

A recently published review article indicates that vitamin D has been proven to 1) reduce blood pressure in hypertensive patients who are deficient; 2) improve blood glucose in diabetics; and 3) improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis (Br J Nutr 2003 May; 89 (5): 552-72).

Vitamin D has also been found to play a role in mental function, and deficiency may be associated with conditions ranging from mild depression or ADD to true mental illness including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and possibly autism. Although the exact role of vitamin D in the brain is not fully understood, it appears to play a role in the synthesis of dopamine and other neurotransmitters.

As pointed out in the Vitamin D Council’s website, studies reveal that mental illness is less common with adequate sun exposure and that vitamin D deficiency occ urs more frequently among individuals with mental illness than in others. Finally, several small studies show that vitamin D supplementation can alleviate mental illness. The absence of larger and more conclusive studies is unquestionably due to lack of interest in an inexpensive vitamin (see the Vitamin D Council’s website for references).

The first step towards identifying and correcting a possible deficiency is to have your blood levels of this vitamin tested. Unfortunately most doctors are unaware of the importance of vitamin D and don’t even know how to test it or how to interpret the results.

In most cases of suspected Vitamin D deficiency, doctors will order a test called 1,25-dihydroxy vitamin D (calcitriol). However, this test is unreliable because it does not accurately portray levels of vitamin D in the body. The only test that truly tells us the actual level of vitamin D is called 25-hydroxy-vitamin D (calcidiol). The names of the two tests are similar but the tests are very different.

This can lead to confusion, since laboratories then report “normal” ranges of vitamin D that are incorrect, reflecting a state of widespread deficiency in which deficient levels have come to be considered normal. According to research performed by Dr. Healey and others, levels above 35 ng/ml are truly normal and a level of 32 or below is indicative of clear deficiency. By contrast, many labs indicate 10 as “normal.”

The dose needed to correct a deficiency ranges from 5,000 to 10,000 IU per day. This should not be seen as a maintenance dose and should be taken only under supervision because blood levels must be monitored to avoid possible toxicity.

Alternatively, deficiencies can be corrected with daily or almost daily exposure to the sun. The entire body should be exposed without sunblock and the front and back of the body should receive equal exposure. Required time in the sun depends on a number of variables, but is equal to 1/3 of the time it takes the skin to begin turning pink. This might only be a few minutes for very fair-skinned individuals, but increases 5 to 10 times in those with darker complexions. In these individuals, vitamin D supplements may be the only realistic way to correct a deficiency.

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