Vitamin D Deficiency and Your Health (Hint: You’re probably deficient!)

I was recently at a mind-boggling conference put on by the American Academy for Anti-Aging Medicine. Before and after going, I found that the reaction I would get from people when they heard about this would either be: a) “Oh my gosh you have to tell me everything you learned!” or b) they’d make a face or cringe, assuming that the conference was full of youth-obsessed experts talking about the latest cosmetic surgery techniques.

I went because other highly respected physician colleagues had given these A4M conferences rave reviews, and I knew that there was a gaping hole in my knowledge base (in most doctors’ knowledge bases, really) about hormones. My friends told me they had learned tons of information that was powerfully relevant and evidence-based but not normally taught in medical school (at least back in the day).

Indeed, I found that rather than talking about age-defying gimmicks, the focus of the presentations was largely on how to diagnose and correct nutritional and hormonal deficiencies that emerge as we get older, some that occur naturally and some because of poor lifestyle choices we make. I have a degree in Dietetics and have been fascinated with the power of nutrition for decades.

I was amazed at how often Vitamin D was mentioned during the conference. The scientific community in general has been waking up to the epidemic of Vitamin D deficiency worldwide and the connection between this deficiency and major diseases. But I wasn’t fully aware of how critical this issue is for our health until this conference.

According to Dr. Ron Rothenberg, who talked about this topic the most, Vitamin D is actually a powerfully potent hormone that targets over 1000 genes in the body. In fact, it’s a “key bio-identical hormone” that needs to be optimized for total wellness.

Vitamin D is made in our skin through exposure to sunlight. Those of us who live far from the equator (especially in areas like Canada or Northern Europe with weak or even non-existent sunlight much of the year) are virtually guaranteed to be deficient if not taking it in supplement form. Milk is usually fortified with vitamin D for this reason, and they have been raising the recommended intake levels steadily as they discover more about this critical deficiency.

Many experts though, say even with fortified foods and recommended supplement intakes many of us are still not getting enough. At the conference several lecturers showed a staggering chart which demonstrated rates of various diseases related to blood levels of Vitamin D.

Higher levels of vitamin D in the body were associated with much lower rates of:

– Heart attacks in men

– Falls in older women (Vit. D increases muscular coordination)

– Breast Cancer

– Colon Cancer

– Lymphoma

– Type I Diabetes

– Kidney Cancer

– All combined cancers

– Fractures

– Multiple Sclerosis

– Endometrial Cancer

Wow. In fact, when you look at graphs that show the incidence of these diseases related to distance from the equator (the farther you get away from the equator, the higher the incidence of these conditions; less sun=lower Vitamin D levels = more illness), it’s truly shocking how clear the pattern is.

Other information I learned about Vitamin D:

1) It protects against heart disease in general

I had no idea! Vitamin D deficiency is associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, and the “metabolic syndrome” (overweight + high cholesterol + high blood sugar + high blood pressure)

2) It protects against auto-immune disease

Vitamin D plays an important role in the functioning of the immune system; the best evidence in potentially preventing auto-immune conditions has been shown in Multiple Sclerosis and Type I Diabetes (which is an auto-immune condition, as compared to Type II Diabetes)

3) It decreases inflammation in the body

Inflammation is a key contributor to disease creation and aging in general.

4) It may reduce pain

People who suffer from pain in their bones and joints (and even those with fibromyalgia) have been found in studies to be deficient in Vitamin D.One study showed that if you took achy people from Norway and put them in sunny Israel, their pain decreased significantly and was tied to newly improved Vitamin D levels.

5) It may slow aging

In addition to being anti-inflammatory, some research has shown that Vitamin D helps promote longer telomeres (these are the tips of our genes – the shorter your telomeres the more your body has aged biologically, thankfully research now suggests that this "aging" can be reversible through diet and lifestyle changes, SO exciting!)

6) It may help you lose weight faster

Research has shown that overweight people with higher vitamin D levels get better and quicker results when they follow a weight loss program. Supplementing participants with Vitamin D also resulted in better outcomes.

So how much do you need to take? This is where there’s tons of debate. First, ask your doctor if you can get your Vitamin D blood level measured, to find out where you are. There’s a very good chance you’re deficient if you don’t live in a hot, sunny region, especially if you wear lots of sunscreen when you go out (we may be reducing skin cancer rates by wearing sunscreen, but some experts are concerned that the decreased Vitamin D levels that result could become a significant issue if people aren’t supplementing).

If you’re deficient, then you clearly need to take more in. I learned from the brilliant Integrative Medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil (see my article on 10 Awesome Health Tips I Learned from Dr. Weil ) that he takes 2000 IU a day. That said, he lives in Tuscon, Arizona, in the sunbelt.

Experts like Rothenberg recommend 5,000 – 10,000 IU a day “to get most people in the ideal range”. The upper limit recommended by the National Institutes of Health is 4000 IU , and since I spend too much time in rainy northern Vancouver, that’s what I take. In any case, it’s good to talk to your doctor as always.

Have you had your blood level done? How much do you take? Would love to hear your thoughts (and will answer your questions) in the comment section below.

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