Important vitamin D does the body good

It's being hailed as a protection against a plethora of cancers, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes and even chronic back pain.

A new, super vaccine? No, just plain old vitamin D. It's not just for building strong bones, medical researchers say.

"I usually tell people that if they hear of a vitamin that does everything, don't believe it. But in the case of vitamin D, I think it might be true," said Mary Ann Johnson, spokeswoman for the American Society for Nutrition and a specialist in gerontology in the department of Foods and Nutrition, College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia.

It's estimated that about one-fourth of people over age 60 have low vitamin D levels. Some studies say that number is too low and as many as 30 percent to 40 percent of people over 50 have this vitamin deficiency. That's because our bodies don't synthesize vitamin D from sunlight as effectively as we age - and many older folks have limited exposure to the sun. Johnson, co-author of a 2006 article on vitamin D in Nutrition Review, calls this vitamin deficit an "unrecognized epidemic."

Long recognized for bone health, vitamin D is now gaining new respect for its role in protecting against cancer as well as other health concerns. One study conducted at the University of California in San Diego linked rates of breast cancer with sun exposure and vitamin D levels, noting that the risk of breast cancer is higher in populations living far from the equator than it is for those in the sunnier climates.

Another study revealed that older women with low levels of vitamin D are more likely to suffer from back pain. This study, published in the May issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric Society and conducted by Dr. Gregory E. Hicks at the University of Delaware in Newark, showed that women with vitamin D deficiency were nearly twice as likely to have back pain that was moderate or worse.

Low levels of vitamin D were also linked with a higher risk of heart attack in men. Researchers led by Dr. Edward Giovannucci of Harvard University School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, found men who had vitamin D levels of 15 ng/ml or less in their blood samples - an indication of vitamin D deficiency - had twice the risk for heart attack as those whose vitamin D levels were considered sufficient (30 ng/mL). This study was published in the June 9 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

The Mayo Clinic recently noted that the vitamin may provide protection from type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis by reducing inflammation and strengthening the immune system. In one study, researchers found a 40 percent lower risk of multiple sclerosis in women who supplemented their diet each day with at least 400 international units of vitamin D.

As word gets out about its benefits, physicians are testing for vitamin D deficiency with a blood test that checks for serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in patients. A national publication recently reported a 74 percent increase in such tests in 2007 at the Mayo Clinic.

While it was once thought that a reading of 50 nmol/L or units of vitamin D in blood serum was desired, recent research has shown that 80 nmol/L provides optimal protection against falls and disease. But don't think that you can soak up all those vitamins in the sun.

"There's no doubt that when people go out in the sun, even 10 minutes, (it) boosts your blood level. But it won't get it up to the optimal 80 count that provides real protection," Johnson said. "Sun is great, but it won't get you to the level you want and it also can give you skin cancer."

One tablespoon of cod liver oil will give you your daily requirement. Or perhaps a multiple vitamin is more to your liking. The new 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans now recommends 1000 IU of vitamin D for older adults, said Johnson.

Take a multiple vitamin containing at least 400 IU's, add a glass of milk and orange juice fortified with vitamin D and calcium and you'll have all the sunshine vitamin you need for the day without worries of getting wrinkles or skin cancer.

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