Several months ago I visited my doctor. After reviewing my blood test results he said, “Oh, your vitamin D levels are low. I would recommend a supplement.” That was it. No information on how much to take or what could happen if I didn’t take it. And I knew so little about vitamin D that I didn’t think to ask. I didn’t do much about my vitamin D deficiency for a while. I relegated it to one of those things I’d “get to in time.” Some weeks later I happened to catch one of those physician radio programs. He was discussing vitamin D and I was about to have a revelation.
It turns out that nearly 60% of the US population is deficient in vitamin D. And should you suspect radio show doctors of quackery, this statistic is backed up by a study published in the March, 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. It found that not only is 59 percent of the population vitamin D deficient, but nearly 25 percent of the study subjects were found to have extremely low levels of vitamin D. The causal link between vitamin D deficiency and rickets is unquestioned and evidence-based studies have also shown it to be associated with osteoporosis. But now there are newly appreciated associations with other diseases, including tuberculosis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, type-1 diabetes, high blood pressure, increased heart failure, muscle myopathy and some types of cancer. According to Grassroots Health, a public health promotion organization, the incidence of these diseases could be reduced by 20%-50% or more if we radically reduced vitamin D deficiency by simply taking more of it.
If vitamin D’s role in all the diseases mentioned about isn’t enough, new research at the University of Copenhagen has revealed that vitamin D activates the immune system by arming T-cells to fight off infections. Without the vitamin the T-cells remain dormant, offering little or no protection against invading microorganisms and viruses. So if you’re facing the winter flu season in a state of vitamin D deficiency, you’re defenseless against seasonal flu. Here’s something to remember: virtually all the people who died from H1N1 influenza were chronically deficient in vitamin D. With no immune system protection they were easy targets for the swine flu.
Unfortunately, health care professionals have largely ignored the problem. The powerful National Academy of Sciences controls many researchers’ grants and oversees the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board (FNB). In 1997, the FNB set vitamin D recommendations to 200, 400 and 600 units, depending on age – advice which seems woefully inadequate in light of the country’s 59% deficiency. The FNB went on to say that 2000 units a day might be toxic and reinforced a near hysterical fear in physicians that vitamin D is highly toxic. Dr. Reinhold Vieth, a prominent vitamin D researcher in Canada, countered the FNB in a 1999 paper in which he suggested that potential toxicity of vitamin D may start at 10,000 units a day but is probably closer to 40,000 units a day. Dr. Robert Heaney of Creighton University reported in 2003 that humans in fact use between 3000 and 5000 units a day, amounts physicians traditionally think are toxic. Dr. Heaney wrote that the FNB recommendations fall into a zone between irrelevance and inadequacy. What gives?
If vitamin D deficiency is the root cause behind so many degenerative diseases, then correcting this deficiency across the population could have implications for our for-profit healthcare industry. Vitamin D supplementation is cheap and effective. A bill introduced to the U.S. Senate, the Dietary Supplement Safety Act of 2010 (S. 3002), was an attempt to allow arbitrary banning of nutritional supplements, like vitamin D, by the FDA and to make it easier to argue for the justification of banning them altogether. It didn’t pass but that doesn’t mean it won’t come around for consideration again later. Something like it is already in effect in Europe, the European Union Food Supplements Directive.
You don’t have to be a cynic or subscribe to conspiracy theories to understand that the US pharmaceutical industry spends billions developing and advertising drugs to combat diseases like MS, diabetes and cancer. They lobby Congress and they fund drug research. It stands to reason they would want to marginalize or discredit arguments for simpler, cheaper, safer alternatives. To put it bluntly, there is no profit in them. The bad news about all of this is that it’s up to the individual to ferret out the clues to the healing properties of good nutrition and effective nutritional supplements. The good news is that alternative information and products, so far, are not hard to find.