The Ultimate Vitamin
Copyright © 2009
by Joe Smulevitz, CH, MH
Imagine a powerful little pill to help significantly reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, auto-immune disorders, infectious diseases, chronic pain, and stroke. Suppose this same pill could strengthen your bones, help relieve depression, and yet be inexpensive and readily available at pharmacies and health food stores. If these statements sound incredible, you have not heard about the important health-promoting benefits of a simple vitamin we get from the sun. Vitamin D, “the sunshine vitamin”, plays a crucial role in the prevention of many deadly diseases.
Awareness of the therapeutic value of vitamin D first came to light in the early 1920s. Researchers observed that sunlight exposure or cod-liver oil could help cure rickets in young children. Further research determined that vitamin D was the substance in cod liver oil responsible for its healing power. Although little was known about how vitamin D worked, or what it was, the vitamin was added to milk, nearly eradicating rickets in the 1930s. Vitamin D continued to be known mainly for bone health, proving to be useful for osteomalacia (“soft bones”) or osteoporosis (“porous bones”) in adults. By the latter part of the 20th century, researchers started to explore the vitamin’s far-reaching effects. This led to a growing awareness of its importance to overall optimal health.
In the last few years there has been an explosion of published studies linking vitamin D deficiency to almost every disease of aging. How can a single nutrient play an important part in so many diverse illnesses? The answer may lie in the fact that most tissues and cells in the body have receptors for this hormone-like vitamin. That is why vitamin D has such wide-ranging effects on the body. Vitamin D is formed when sunlight exposure converts a cholesterol derivative normally found in the skin into vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). In order to be functional, this inactive form of vitamin D must be activated first in the liver and completed in the kidneys. Vitamin D3 is the most potent and best-absorbed type of vitamin D. Other forms of vitamin D are not as useful.
Here is a brief look at some of the dangerous diseases related to being deficient in vitamin D:
- Cancer. High vitamin D levels are associated with a reduced risk of developing several types of cancer, including colon, breast, prostate, lung, pancreatic, and colorectal cancer.
- Heart disease. Deficiency of vitamin D may lead to high blood pressure and stroke. Individuals with low vitamin D levels in the body are more likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease than those with healthy blood levels of vitamin D.
- Osteoporosis. Strong evidence suggests vitamin D has the ability to protect against osteoporosis and hip fractures.
- Auto-immune disorders and infectious diseases. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with an increased likelihood of developing diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Susceptibility to influenza increases with low levels of vitamin D in the blood.
How can we ensure that our bodies obtain sufficient amounts of vitamin D to help prevent these major diseases? Ideally, exposure to sunlight for 10 to 15 minutes a day is the best way to achieve its health benefits. Unfortunately, many of us cannot get sufficient sunlight on a regular basis. Evidence suggests certain segments of the population are especially prone to vitamin D deficiency. These include seniors, whose skin production of vitamin D slows down with age; people living in northern climates; people who wear clothing that covers much of their skin; dark-skinned individuals, due to high melanin skin content; those taking certain medications that might interfere with vitamin D absorption; individuals confined to the indoors; and persons obese or overweight are less efficient making vitamin D in response to sunlight.
It is nearly impossible to obtain adequate amounts of vitamin D through diet. Only a few foods such as oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are natural sources of vitamin D. Other sources include fortified foods such as milk, cereal, grains, and juices. You would have to consume large quantities of these foods to get an acceptable amount of vitamin D. The most practical way to insure our vitamin D levels is from dietary supplements. Many health experts advise adults to supplement with at least 1,000 international units (IU) daily to help prevent the broad spectrum of diseases linked to vitamin D deficiency. However, it is advisable to have a healthcare practitioner check vitamin D levels to determine deficiency and monitor the effects of vitamin D supplementation.
Joe Smulevitz is a nutritional researcher and author of numerous health articles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.