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Vitamin D Benefits: Science or Hype?

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First, what is Vitamin D exactly?

Vitamin D is required for the regulation of the minerals, calcium, and phosphorus found in the body. And in addition to calcium, it is an important aspect of maintaining proper bone structure.

Natural sunlight exposure is the easiest and most reliable way for most people to get vitamin D. Normal exposure of the hands, face, arms, and legs to sunlight 2-3 times a week for 10-30 minutes is sufficient time to produce enough vitamin D. The necessary exposure time varies with age, skin type, season, time of day, and other factors. During periods of sunlight, vitamin D is stored in your body fat and then released when sunlight is gone.

Vitamin D’s ability to help build strong bones by increasing the body’s absorption of calcium and phosphorous is long known. However, recent years have seen it associated as a defense against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mood swings, and depression. But current studies are now altering our understanding of this vitamin, and while not diminishing its importance to our body’s health, may be challenging some decades-old hype.

In 2014, in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers recruited and studied the vitamin D effects in over 25,000 healthy U.S. adults over 50 for an average of almost 5 1/2 years. The study concluded that vitamin D supplements did not lower the risk of cancer, stroke, or heart attack.

And in early 2019, researchers published an analysis of prior studies on the link between vitamin D supplements, cancer risk, and survival. The analysis found no link between supplementation and reduced cancer risk; however, studies suggested that taking vitamin D supplements may lower the risk of dying from cancer by 13%. The study did not determine if the potential vitamin D supplement effect actually caused the body’s own immune system to improve and fight cancer, or if the supplement was directly responsible. In contrast to these possible positive results, a recently published Vitamin D and Omega-3 Trial (VITAL) noted that in a large study of more than 25,000 participants that those taking a vitamin D supplement did not lower rates of heart attack, stroke, or cancer. However, among people who later developed cancer, those who took vitamin D supplements for at least two years had a 25% lower chance of dying from their cancer compared with those who received a placebo.

Possible Assistance in Weight Loss

There is limited evidence vitamin D levels may affect one’s ability to lose weight.

In a 2009 study in the British Journal of Nutrition, some participants taking daily calcium and vitamin D supplement were able to lose more weight than subjects taking a placebo supplement.

Possible Evidence that Vitamin D Supplementation Could Reduce Respiratory Inflammation Risks

An April 2020 article in the periodical Nutrients, suggests vitamin D can reduce risk of infections.

According to the article’s researchers, vitamin D supports mechanisms that can lower viral replication rates and reduce concentrations of pro-inflammatory cytokines that produce lung inflammation that typically leads to pneumonia, as well as boosting concentrations of anti-inflammatory cytokines. Again, there are mixed results on this too, as several observational studies and clinical trials did not observe any effect from vitamin D in reducing the risk of influenza.

Foods highest in vitamin D on wooden background.

Natural Sources of Vitamin D

Foods that provide vitamin D include:

  • Fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel, and salmon
  • Foods fortified with vitamin D, like some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals
  • Beef liver
  • Cheese
  • Egg yolks

Depositphotos_45202029_xl-2015

Vitamin D Supplements

While research is ongoing, there are benefits from taking vitamin D supplements to promote bone health; however, large amounts of vitamin D are not required to get the benefit.  Notably, a 2010 study published in JAMA showed that intake of very high doses of vitamin D in older women was associated with more falls and fractures.

But too much vitamin D (or any supplment) can create risks. Taking a supplement that contains too much vitamin D can be toxic in rare cases. It can lead to hypercalcemia, a condition in which too much calcium builds up in the blood, potentially forming deposits in the arteries or soft tissues. It may also predispose women to painful kidney stones.

Vitamin D2 and D3

The most important forms of Vitamin D for the human body are D3 and (to a lesser extent) D2. If you select to take vitamin D supplements, choose a quality supplement and eating some foods fortified with D3.

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