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updated: 8/4/2014 10:21 AM

Vitamin D deficiency causes concern

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A recent article in the Southern Medical Journal indicates that the incidence of vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency in this country is significantly higher than previously thought.

Between 2007 and 2010, the incidence of vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency has tripled. This is of serious concern because low levels of vitamin D seem to increase the risk of not just osteoporosis but many other diseases as well.

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Vitamin D is the term given to an entire group of similar molecules. We are able to make vitamin D when exposed to the proper frequency of sunlight. The cells in a specific layer of skin, the Malpighian layer, are able to use sunlight and cholesterol to form one type of vitamin D.

The liver and kidneys are able to further transform this early form of vitamin D into vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Although we are able to make vitamin D, most of us do not get nearly enough sunlight on a daily basis to make what we need. Therefore, we need to get it in our diet. Some foods may be enriched in vitamin D; however, these foods are rarely enough to supply our daily needs.

In this recent medical study, data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey between 2007 and 2010 were used. This data reflects visits to primary care physicians and outpatient setting.

Using the diagnosis of vitamin D deficiency, it was noted that between 2007 and 2010, the number of patients with this diagnosis tripled. In 2008, 383 patients per 100,000 had a diagnosis of vitamin D deficiency. By 2008 this number was 783 per hundred thousand, and in 2010 the number of patients with a diagnosis of vitamin D deficiency was 1,177 per 100,000. It was surprising to see such a dramatic change within a short period of time.

One of the reasons for this increase in the diagnosis of vitamin D deficiency may be an increased public awareness of the importance of vitamin D. It may also be an increasing physician awareness of the importance of robust vitamin D levels and health.

One of the drawbacks to the study is that it may actually underrepresent vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency. In my clinical practice, a low vitamin D level is very common.

Physicians often characterize vitamin D deficiency as a level of vitamin D that is lower than the laboratory reference range. The reference range is usually not the same as the healthy range, the optimal range or even in the normal range. It is the range of values found in 95 percent of the patients who had had that lab test done.

Considering that most people do not get enough sun or vitamin D supplement to fulfill their vitamin D requirements, most people in Northern Illinois may be functionally vitamin D deficient.

I strongly recommend checking your vitamin D level annually with the goal vitamin D level to be between 50 and 70.

• Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.

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