Vitamin D deficiency is a pandemic in the United States, but many Americans, including physicians, are not aware that they may be lacking this important nutrient.
Despite its name, vitamin D is not a regular vitamin. It’s actually a steroid hormone that you get primarily from either sun exposure or supplementation, and its ability to influence genetic expression that produces many of its wide-ranging health benefits.
Researchers have pointed out that increasing levels of vitamin D3 among the general population could prevent chronic diseases that claim nearly one million lives throughout the world each year. Incidence of several types of cancer could also be slashed in half.
Vitamin D also fights infections, including colds and the flu, as it regulates the expression of genes that influence your immune system to attack and destroy bacteria and viruses.
In addition to the health benefits already mentioned above, optimizing your vitamin D levels can help protect against:
- Cardiovascular disease. Vitamin D is very important for reducing hypertension, atherosclerotic heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. According to Dr. Holick, one study showed that vitamin D deficiency increased the risk of heart attack by 50 percent. What’s worse, if you have a heart attack and you’re vitamin D deficient, your risk of dying from that heart attack creeps up to 100 percent!
- Autoimmune diseases. Vitamin D is a potent immune modulator, making it very important for the prevention of autoimmune diseases, like MS and inflammatory bowel disease.
- Infections, including influenza. It also helps you fight infections of all kinds. A study done in Japan, for example, showed that schoolchildren taking 1,200 units of vitamin D per day during the winter time reduced their risk of getting influenza A infection by about 40 percent. I believe it’s far more prudent, safer, less expensive, and most importantly, far more effective to optimize your vitamin D levels than to get vaccinated against the flu. According to Dr. Holick:
“I think you’re right. We know that the immune cells use vitamin D and that they activate vitamin D. There’s good evidence that it will help kill tuberculosis bacteria, for example, if you have adequate vitamin D on board… We think that the immune system is primed with vitamin D in order to help fight infections.”
DNA repair and metabolic processes. One of Dr. Holick’s studies showed that healthy volunteers taking 2,000 IUs of vitamin D per day for a few months upregulated 291 different genes that control up to 80 different metabolic processes; from improving DNA repair to having effect on autoxidation (oxidation that occurs in the presence of oxygen and /or UV radiation, which has implications for aging and cancer, for example), boosting the immune system, and many other biological processes.
In addition to its primary benefits, research suggests that vitamin D may also play a role in:
- reducing your risk of multiple sclerosis, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association
- decreasing your chance of developing heart disease, according to 2008 findings published in Circulation
- helping to reduce your likelihood of developing the flu, according to 2010 research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Beware of “D-ficiency”
Many lifestyle and environmental factors can affect your ability to get sufficient amounts of this vitamin through the sun alone. These factors include:
- use of sunscreen
- spending more time indoors
- working longer hours in offices
- living in big cities where buildings block sunlight
- These factors contribute to vitamin D deficiency in an increasing number of people. That’s why it’s important to get some of your vitamin D from sources besides sunlight.