Most vitamin supplements have taken a beating in the press over the past few years. That’s because so many studies of vitamin pills to prevent cancer or heart disease have come up short.
As a result of the negative news, some doctors discourage patients from taking big doses of separate vitamins. They recommend eating a well-balanced diet with nothing more than a multi-vitamin for nutritional insurance.
The one exception is vitamin D. It is becoming a shining star in the nutritional universe.
For decades doctors thought that vitamin D deficiency was a thing of the past. They rarely saw rickets in children. This bone deformity is brought on by a severe lack of vitamin D during development. Fortification of foods such as milk and breakfast cereal made rickets rare.
When most people think of vitamin D bones come to mind. Research over the past several years has shown, however, that this nutrient affects many other organs in the body. Scientists have found associations between low vitamin D levels and a variety of chronic conditions including arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and depression. People with insufficient vitamin D also seem more susceptible to respiratory tract infections such as influenza (Epidemiology and Infection, Dec. 2006).
Many other studies have found that when people get adequate amounts of vitamin D they have a lower risk of developing cancer of the colon, breast, ovaries or prostate (American Journal of Public Health, Feb. 2006).
Despite its glowing reputation, the number of Americans who are deficient in this nutrient is increasing at an alarming rate. A recent analysis reveals that approximately three out of every four adults is low in vitamin D. That’s up dramatically over the last decade (Archives of Internal Medicine, March 23, 2009).
The investigators hypothesize that this negative trend may be due in part to more time spent inside working on computers, playing video games or watching TV. Even people who go outside have become more conscientious about covering up and using high SPF sunscreen, which prevents the formation of vitamin D by the skin. The researchers also suggest that current recommendations (200 to 600 IU daily) for vitamin D supplementation are inadequate.
There may be another reason why many people should be getting more vitamin D. Millions of Americans take statin-type cholesterol-lowering medications like Crestor, Lipitor or Zocor. These drugs can cause muscle pain and weakness. Preliminary studies suggest that people who have inadequate vitamin D levels may be more susceptible to such muscle problems (Translational Research, Jan. 2009).
One woman suffered severe muscle pain while on a statin until she was diagnosed with insufficient vitamin D. Once her vitamin D level was normalized, her muscle pain disappeared.
With so many people low in this critical nutrient, doctors should be testing their patients for vitamin D levels. Those found to be low should be getting more time in the sun or taking vitamin D supplements to bring vitamin D levels into the optimal range. This simple approach could alleviate a lot of suffering.