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Caring Currents

The Best Way to Protect Your Health: Take Vitamin D

By , Caring.com senior editor
Last updated: November 09, 2009
Image by Brent Nelson used under the creative commons attribution license.

It's time to talk once again about the importance of vitamin D, aka the sunlight vitamin. I've written about vitamin D before, but good advice bears repeating. For one thing, a lot of Caring.com visitors have been mentioning it on some of my cancer and health posts. (Thanks for helping to spread the word!) For another, more and more compelling news about the benefits of vitamin D keeps coming out -- yet the message doesn't seem to be reaching people.

My step mom, who's in her mid-60s, was recently telling me and my sisters about some health problems she's having, including thinning bones. Yet when I asked if she was taking vitamin D, she said her doctor hadn't mentioned it. Surprised, I asked my sisters, all in their 40s, if they were taking vitamin D, and none were, even though they suffer from a variety of health problems that vitamin D provides important protection against. So here's a roundup of the latest reasons to add a vitamin D supplement to your daily regimen.

1. It protects against breast cancer, and helps prevent breast cancer from spreading. There have been many studies supporting this claim; one recent Canadian study found that women diagnosed with breast cancer who were vitamin D deficient had almost double the risk of their cancer progressing.
2. It protects against colon cancer. One study found colon cancer patients deficient in vitamin D were almost twice as likely to die as patients with healthy levels.
3. It protects against 16 other types of cancer. These include deadly pancreatic and lung cancer.
4. It protects you from stroke and heart attack. Recent research at Harvard found that those with low vitamin D had a 60 percent higher risk of stroke, heart attack, or heart failure over five years.
5. It boosts your immune system. Some researchers think low vitamin D levels are going to turn out to be the "X-factor" that makes some people more susceptible to serious illness with H1N1.
6. It protects against fracture. One study found that people taking vitamin D supplements lowered their hip fracture risk by almost 20 percent.
7. It helps you live longer. Experts don't yet know exactly why, but a study published just last month followed 3,000 people over the age of 73 and found those who fell into the lowest quarter of vitamin D levels had an 83 percent higher risk of death from any cause.

Convinced yet? I sure hope so. Polls of doctors show that vitamin D is one of only a few supplements doctors say they're careful to take themselves. And studies show that about 41 percent of men and 53 percent of women in the U.S. have vitamin D levels that are too low.

There also seems to be confusion about how much vitamin D to take, and no wonder. That's because the U.S. daily guidelines are wrong. There, I said it; they're just plain wrong. The majority of medical experts agree, but bureaucracy is slow, especially in the case of public health recommendations, and they've not yet been changed.

Do what vitamin D researchers recommend and ignore the guidelines (in this particular case). The consensus of medical opinion is to take 2000 IUs of vitamin D3 daily. (This form of vitamin D is better absorbed and stays in your blood longer, and you can't get it from food.) In the summer, it's also a good idea to go outside in the sunlight for 15 minutes a day without sunscreen, but it's winter right now and unless you live in the south or southwest, the sun won't be strong enough to have a vitamin D-building effect.

An even more reliable option is to ask your doctor to have your vitamin D blood level measured the next time you test your cholesterol and lipids. The result you want? Optimum is between 35 and 55 nanograms per milliliter, also measured as between 80 and 120 nanomoles per liter. If your vitamin D levels are low, you can take drugstore vitamin D or ask for a prescription vitamin D supplement; these are even stronger than what you can get over the counter. Have your doctor check your vitamin D level again in six months and see if it's now in the optimum range.

And if you're supplementing with vitamin D on your own and worried you might take too much, move on to other worries -- it's really not a serious risk. The reason it's so puzzling to many experts why people aren't taking vitamin D is that there's very little downside; vitamin D causes no side effects and you'd have to take an enormous amount before your blood levels would rise too high.

One more thing -- as we age, we're even more likely to be vitamin D deficient because our bodies become less efficient at synthesizing vitamin D from the sun. So if you're caring for older family members, make sure they're taking vitamin D as well.