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Vitamin D – The Promises and the Perils

Are there benefits to Vitamin D supplements?
Are there benefits to Vitamin D supplements?

The interest in Vitamin D supplements has grown significantly in the last 10 years. Sales increased from $107 million in 2007 to $936 million in 2017. To keep that growth going, increasingly outrageous health claims are being made.

In 2010, there weren't a lot of large-scale studies available to prove or disprove many of the claims. Now in 2019, we have a much clearer picture of what it can and can't do.

Before I get into the studies, I'd like to clear something up that's been bothering me for some time. Vitamin D is NOT actually a vitamin. By definition, vitamins cannot be synthesized by our bodies. We can make all the vitamin D we need with nothing more than exposure to the sun. Vitamin D is a hormone, made by our skin in response to that sun exposure. When you take “vitamin” D you're really taking in HORMONE D.

Most of the research we found early on were observational studies. That's where researchers identified associations between things rather than controlled clinical trials. For example, in an observational study, researchers found that people who were at greater risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or obesity had lower levels of vitamin D in their blood. So the assumption was made that if we increase the vitamin D, those people would decrease their risk of those diseases or conditions.

We saw those very same assumptions made in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The vitamins of choice back then were vitamin A, E and beta-carotene. People who experienced health issues, had lower levels of those vitamins in their system. Supplement companies promoted vitamins A, E and beta-carotene as healthy pills that would help you live longer.

Long-term clinical trials found those vitamins weren't helping at all. People who took vitamin A, E or beta-carotene supplements were dying younger than non-vitamin taking groups. People were paying money to take pills that killed them sooner.

There appear to be many similarities with vitamin D. Sick people stay indoors more than healthy people, reducing their exposure to the sun and reducing the amount of vitamin D in their bodies. Low vitamin D levels don't cause disease, they're the result of having a disease.

Let's look at vitamin D and obesity. Since vitamin D is absorbed in the skin, you would think that an obese person who lays in the sun would get MORE vitamin D than a skinny person. After all, an obese person has more skin surface area to soak up the suns rays. BUT, vitamin D is fat-soluble. That means all that excess fat absorbs the vitamin D first, before the body can take it and put it to good use.

Researchers found that obese people may need two to three times the vitamin D dose of a fit person. Being obese causes lower levels of vitamin D. Low vitamin D doesn't cause obesity.

In the June 19th, 2019 issue of JAMA Cardiology, the results of a large vitamin D supplementation study was released. Researchers looked at 83,291 participants in 21 clinical trials. After going through all the data, the researchers concluded: “...vitamin D supplementation was not associated with reduced risks of major adverse cardiovascular events, myocardial infarction, stroke, cardiovascular disease mortality, or all-cause mortality compared with placebo.”

That means people who took vitamin D weren't protected against heart attacks or stroke any better than people who took a placebo.

It gets worse. A study released from Tufts University on April 9th, 2019 looked into the relationship between vitamins and health. What they concluded was, “There was no association between dietary supplement use and a lower risk of death.” They found if you ate FOOD that was high in nutritious vitamins, you would live longer. But if you just took supplement pills, they wouldn't help you.

That same study found that people who did not have a vitamin D deficiency, but took vitamin D supplements had an, “increased risk of death from all causes including cancer.” That means not only are vitamin D pills NOT helping, they may be increasing your risk of cancer and an early death.

The primary function of vitamin D is in calcium regulation and bone health. If you want to make sure you have strong healthy bones, get outside for a few minutes every day of sun exposure, or eat foods rich in vitamin D. Drop a few pounds if you're overweight or obese. Then make sure to engage in strength training exercises at least three times a week.

Vitamin D supplements are NOT the cure-all they've been made out to be. For the vast majority of people taking them, clinical research now shows they may be a waste of money and potentially harmful to your health. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.

Vitamin D Fact Sheet

You can click to download a fact sheet about Vitamin D from the National Institutes of Health - Office of Dietary Supplements at this link here: Vitamin D - Fact Sheet for Health Professionals PDF File

Vitamin D Supplements Do NOT Improve Bone Health - Update 9/12/19

In a study released on August 27, 2019, researchers found, "Among healthy adults, supplementation with higher doses of vitamin D did not result in improved bone health;"

Over the three-year placebo-controlled and randomized trial, researchers found that subjects who took the higher levels of vitamin D supplement, had LOWER bone density at the end of the study. Vitamin D supplements appeared to have a negative effect on bone health. You can read the full study at the link below.

Effect of High-Dose Vitamin D Supplementation on Volumetric Bone Density and Bone Strength - A Randomized Clinical Trial: JAMA. 2019;322(8):736-745. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.11889

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Updated 9/12/2019