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updated: 10/31/2010 8:57 AM

Vitamin D invaluable to good health

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Ten years ago, few knew about vitamin D. It was a mystery and had something to do with sunlight. Today, it seems that every newspaper, magazine and journal has at least one article on the benefits or lack thereof of vitamin D. Shedding some light on this topic, a recent medical study found that those with low serum levels of vitamin D are at greater risk of severe illnesses than those with robust vitamin D levels.

In 1921, vitamin D was discovered by American biochemist Elmer McCollum. Since it was the fourth vitamin discovered, he called it vitamin D. However, vitamin D is not a vitamin, but a hormone. Vitamin D precursors are made in the skin and then transformed in the liver and kidney to the most active form, vitamin D3. Severe vitamin D deficiency is associated with a number of diseases especially those associated with bone loss like rickets (children), osteomalacia (adults) and osteoporosis.

Over the past several years, connections with low vitamin D levels and serious medical conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, diabetes, depression and kidney failure have been identified. Indeed, increased death rates may also be linked to low vitamin D levels.

A research paper, presented at the annual American College of Cardiology meeting earlier this year, summarized much of the data on the clinical importance of low levels of vitamin D. This research compiled data from an observational study of 9,000 patients over six years. This means that vitamin D levels were determined at the beginning and end of the study and new onset medical conditions were recorded. The results were impressive.

The average age was 57 years and 78 percent were women. At the beginning of the study, the average vitamin D level was 19 milliliters, which is low. Interestingly, most patients I see have similar, low vitamin D levels. Almost half of the patients were able to significantly increase their vitamin D levels over the course of the study. Those who did not increase their vitamin D levels had more diabetes, heart attacks and heart failure and kidney disease compared to those who were able to reach a higher vitamin D level.

In this study, a blood level of 44 mL or higher resulted in 27 percent fewer cases of atherosclerotic heart disease, 32 percent decrease in heart failure, a whopping 59 percent reduction in heart attack and a 51 percent reduction in kidney failure. In addition, anemia decreased by 30 percent and skeletal disease (bone loss) was reduced by an astonishing 71 percent. Death rates and depression also were reduced in those with higher vitamin D levels. Currently there is no single medication whose benefits even come close to those of vitamin D.

Although we can make vitamin D from sunlight and cholesterol, in the Chicago area, the sun is not intense enough year round and most of us cannot get enough by diet. Fortunately, vitamin D supplements are inexpensive and readily available. The key to health must include the "sunshine vitamin."

Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.