Not Just a Vitamin: The Super Supplement You Can’t Afford to Miss
There’s a secret hiding on the shelves of your local health-food store – a humble bottle filled with pills masquerading as a simple vitamin.
But those tablets contain something way more powerful than your everyday nutrient.
In fact, the “vitamin” I’m about to tell you about has the amazing ability to act like a hormone once it enters your body. And its effects – stronger bones, fewer fractures, and even the potential for a lower risk of conditions as diverse as back pain and autoimmune disease – make this supplement anything but ordinary.
This super supplement is vitamin D. Yet many of us aren’t getting nearly enough of this crucial compound.
Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on these benefits. And guess what?
With some smart decisions, you don’t have to.
More Than a Vitamin…
Most of us think we know what a “vitamin” is – a nutrient essential for good health.
But vitamin D is a little more complex than that.
See, “vitamin D” is just the umbrella term for a whole group of fat-soluble compounds that your body needs to maintain its balance of minerals. The main forms are vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol, found in plants, yeasts, and fungi) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol, of animal origin).
Your kidneys and liver convert cholecalciferol to 1,25-dihydroxy vitamin D3 (Calcitriol), and then something pretty amazing happens. This vitamin starts to act like a hormone.
In short, vitamin D3 gives you more bang for your buck: You’re getting all of the usual benefits of a vitamin, along with the extraordinary properties of a hormone. That’s because, as a hormone, Calcitriol controls phosphorus, calcium, and bone metabolism and neuromuscular function. And that means better bone health – and then some.
There’s no doubt that vitamin D3 is key to good health. Scientists first discovered the importance of vitamin D more than a century ago, when they found that the nutrient could help prevent rickets, a deficiency disease that causes skeletal abnormalities.
Since then, vitamin D has been shown to benefit other aspects of bone health. And an increasing amount of research has linked vitamin D3 deficiency to a number of other health conditions including back pain, both insulin resistance and pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, impaired immunity, multiple sclerosis, macular degeneration, and even some cancers.
Clearly, this is no simple nutrient!
Boning Up on Vitamin D…
Acting as Calcitrol, vitamin D3 helps your body maintain optimal levels of calcium and phosphate needed for bone formation.
What does that mean for you? Stronger bones and fewer fractures. And a number of high-quality studies support this benefit.
For example, a study of 113 women with osteoporosis found that those who took 0.75 mcg of vitamin D3 daily had increased bone mineral density in their lumbar (lower back) region after two years. They were also less likely to break a bone.1
Another study of nearly 200 older women with vitamin D deficiency found that supplementing with 400 IU of vitamin D and 500 mg of calcium twice a day for a year was associated with significantly greater bone mineral density throughout the body.2
And a 2002 meta-analysis of 25 studies found that vitamin D decreases vertebral fractures and may decrease non-vertebral fractures.3
There’s also good evidence that supplementing with vitamin D may help keep seniors stay steady on their feet, preventing falls that can cause broken bones in the first place.
In one 2009 study, researchers found that elderly men and women who took 800 IU of vitamin D and 1,000 mg of calcium daily for a year were significantly less likely to fall. They also had improved muscle strength and posture.4 Another study showed that falls decreased by 49 percent in elderly people who took a similar combination of vitamin D and calcium.5
Benefits Beyond Bone Health…
Vitamin D may not just be a bone protector. In recent years, an increasing number of studies have linked a deficiency of D to everything from macular degeneration to breast cancer.
But just because a condition may be associated with a deficiency doesn’t mean that supplemental vitamin D can prevent these problems in healthy people who aren’t deficient.
For example, people with low levels of vitamin D seem to have a higher risk of developing hypertension than those with higher levels of vitamin D. However, there’s no proof that low levels of vitamin D directly cause high blood pressure in healthy people.
In fact, a large study found that taking 400 IU of vitamin D daily plus calcium supplements did not lower blood pressure significantly or reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure in postmenopausal women.
Likewise, evidence of whether vitamin D can help prevent breast cancer is mixed. The large Women’s Health Initiative found that taking 400 IU of vitamin D and 1,000 mg of calcium per day does not seem to lower the chance of getting breast cancer.
The good news? Research does suggest some benefits for vitamin D beyond bone health.
For instance, some studies seem to indicate that vitamin D could be helpful in the treatment of musculoskeletal issues, such as lower back pain and improved muscle strength in older adults.
And a 2012 study found that 400 IU of vitamin D daily appeared to reduce disease activity and symptoms in women with multiple sclerosis.6
Perhaps even more impressive? A 2007 meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials – published in the Archives of Internal Medicine – found that people who supplemented with up to 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily were less likely to die from any cause compared to those who didn’t supplement.7 That’s powerful stuff!
The Sun is Out…
What else makes vitamin D special? Well, our bodies have the remarkable ability to produce this vitamin in response to sun exposure – specifically, ultraviolet (UV) rays.
In centuries past, people got almost all of their vitamin D from the sun. But as we started spending less time outdoors, our levels of this crucial nutrient dropped. Factor in our use of sunscreen in response to concerns about skin cancer, and you can see why an estimated one-third of Americans are at risk for inadequate levels of vitamin D or are flat out deficient in it.
Here’s another reason why you can’t rely on the sun alone for your dose of D: African-Americans and other dark-skinned people need significantly more UV exposure to produce adequate vitamin D. This is because the higher melanin content in darker skin reduces the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D from sunlight. Very dark-skinned people require 4 to 6 times more sunlight exposure than light-skinned people.
Plus, your location in relation to the equator, as well as the time of year, can also affect your ability to make vitamin D.
A Dose of Advice…
Clearly, supplementation with vitamin D is a must. But how much should you take?
Well, this is where things get a little fuzzy.
You see, the ideal dose of vitamin D remains controversial. The U.S. government’s Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is just 600 IU for adults age 70 and younger and 800 IU for those who are 71 or older.
Yet research suggests that 400 to 1,000 IU may be optimal for preventing osteoporosis and fractures, 800 to 1,000 IU may be most effective for preventing falls, and as I pointed out earlier up to 2,000 IU daily may reduce your risk of death by all causes. Depending on the individual, some experts recommend daily doses of vitamin D of up to 10,000 IU a day.
The amount of supplemental vitamin D you need is at least partly dependent on whether or not you’re deficient. Most experts would say you’re safe taking 2,000 IU a day, and this is the dose I’d recommend for most, though some of you may need far more.
If you really want to get precise about the exact amount you need, a safe, easy test can tell you exactly where you stand in the D department.
Ask your health practitioner for a 25-hydroxyvitamin D, or 25(OH)D, test. This will check your blood for levels of vitamin D3 and is the best marker of overall vitamin D status and health. You want to have optimal – not simply “adequate” – blood levels of D. That means you should supplement if your levels are anything less than 50 ng/ml. Ideally, you want blood levels that hit 100 ng/ml.
Can you take too much vitamin D? Yes – but it’s not easy. Research suggests that you’d have to take well over 10,000 IU a day for an extended period of time.
Even in these cases, side effects are rare, but watch for signs that you’re taking too much, such as weakness, fatigue, sleepiness, headache, loss of appetite, dry mouth, metallic taste, nausea, and vomiting.
Check with your doctor before taking vitamin D if you have kidney disease, sarcoidosis, tuberculosis, or lymphoma, or if you take prescription or over-the-counter drugs such as antacids, diuretics, and certain heart and blood pressure medications.
It’s tempting to pass up supplements and rely on the sun’s rays to get your fill of vitamin D. But you’d not only be risking a burn, you’d likely miss out on the protective benefits of this important nutrient. With vitamin D, supplementation is the way to go.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1 Shikari M, Kushida K, Yamazaki K, et al. Effects of 2 years’ treatment of osteoporosis with 1 alpha-hydroxy vitamin D3 on bone mineral density and incidence of fracture: a placebo-controlled, double-blind prospective study. Endocr J. 1996 Apr;43(2):211-20. PMID_9026268
2 Grados F, Brazier M, Kamel S, et al. Effects on bone mineral density of calcium and vitamin D supplementation in elderly women with vitamin D deficiency. Joint Bone Spine. 2003 Jun;70(3):203-8. PMID_12814763
3 Papadimitropoulos et al. Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Vitamin D Treatment in Preventing Osteoporosis in Postmenopausal Women. Endocrine Reviews. August 2002; 23 (4): 560
4 Pfeifer M, Begerow B, Minne HW, et al. Effects of a long-term vitamin D and calcium supplementation on falls and parameters of muscle function in community-dwelling older individuals. Osteoporos Int. 2009 Feb;20(2):315-22. PMID_18629569
5 Bischoff HA, Stähelin HB, Dick W, et al. Effects of vitamin D and calcium supplementation on falls: a randomized controlled trial. J Bone Miner Res. 2003 Feb;18(2):343-51. PMID_12568412
6 Soilu-Hänninen M, Aivo J, Lindström BM, et al. A randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trial with vitamin D3 as an add on treatment to interferon β-1b in patients with multiple sclerosis. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2012 May;83(5):565-71. PMID_22362918
7 Autier P, Gandini S. Vitamin D supplementation and mortality. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167(16):1730-1737.
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