By Patrick Cox | November 26, 2013
The scientific consensus that has held sway for four decades regarding both exposure to the sun and vitamin D has collapsed. What has emerged in place of the old "settled science" is the knowledge that most people in North America are seriously vitamin D deficient or insufficient. The same is true for northern Europe, and the implications are staggering.
Simply put, unless you're one of the few people with optimal serum D levels—such as lifeguards and roofers in South Florida—you can cut your risks from most major diseases by 50 to 80 percent. All you have to do is get enough D. It also means we can significantly reduce both healthcare costs and the staggering national deficit by taking a few simple steps.
I advise all my readers to get and keep their vitamin D levels up. This is simply because the economic benefits of doing so are so profound.
I've come to the conclusions you'll read below because my job as a tech investment advisor requires that I survey thousands of the most recent scientific studies. In the last few years, an overwhelming flood of new evidence has been produced supporting the view that the medical and nutritional establishments have been fundamentally wrong about vitamin D's physiological role and optimal dosage.
I'll include a number of links at the end of this report to researchers and organizations with enormous credibility. They have journal articles online with voluminous footnotes. I would encourage you to then verify even their information and act accordingly.
If researchers are right, the benefits of raising your serum D levels to about 40 ng/ml are enormous. If they're wrong, the risks associated with the recommended therapy are trivial, if not nonexistent, especially if done through supplementation. This is simple Bayesian analysis.
If you do take my advice and perform further research on this subject, you will still encounter holdouts who assert that unprotected exposure to sunshine is always dangerous and that a normal diet supplemented by a daily multivitamin provides sufficient vitamin D. Behind the scenes, however, even the NIH has moderated its position on vitamin D without taking too much blame for having resisted those who have urged reassessment for decades.
Changing Vitamin D Standards and What They Mean
Now we know that very few people have optimal serum levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D], the principal form of vitamin D circulating in the blood. Moreover, those with more melanin manufacture less vitamin D in their skin, so they suffer disproportionately from diseases exacerbated by vitamin D deficiencies.
Dr. Michael Holick, the researcher most responsible for this radical change in thinking, has described the current state of widespread vitamin D deficiency as a "silent epidemic." It's a serious public health problem that affects virtually all diseases. To understand this change in thinking, we need to review briefly the history of vitamin D and our understanding of its functions.
In the 1890s, the crippling, bone-softening children's disease rickets was still widespread in northern states, which has more pollution and a thicker ozone layer than the Northwest. Ozone blocks the invisible component of sunshine, ultraviolet B (UVB), which produces vitamin D in the skin.
In the early 1900s, it was demonstrated that summer midday sunshine prevented rickets. As a result, there was an effort to educate the public, and nearly everybody learned that a little sunshine was good for you. If you're of baby boomer age, your mother undoubtedly told you to go outside and get some sun. That's why.
Ironically, the beginning of the end of this attitude came in 1923 when a means of producing dietary D was found. University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemistry professor Harry Steenbock discovered that the vitamin D content of milk and other organic substances could be increased with ultraviolet (UV) irradiation. This led to the widespread enrichment of milk and the near elimination of rickets. Slowly, the perception of sunshine as healthy began to fade.
For the most part, scientists lost interest in the biological role of sunshine for higher animals. Dr. Michael Holick was the notable exception. For the last thirty years, Holick has been gathering data, doing research, and studying the role of sunshine and vitamin D.
As a graduate student, Holick first identified the major circulating form of vitamin D in human blood as 25-hydroxyvitamin D. He then isolated and identified the active form of vitamin D as 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D. He determined the mechanism for how vitamin D is synthesized in the skin, and demonstrated the effects of aging, obesity, latitude, seasonal change, sunscreen use, skin pigmentation, and clothing on this vital cutaneous process.
Thanks to his work, we now know that D is not actually a vitamin. It is a "prohormone," meaning that it's a precursor form of a steroid hormone created by conversion in various organs. This active hormone regulates multiple important biological functions. Every single cell in the body has a D receptor—even stem cells.
When I asked Holick what the source of his epiphany was so long ago, he explained that it was the simple fact that D is a critical nutrient without a natural food source. It is so important biologically that early humans could manufacture D even during famines.
For that reason, he questioned the conventional zero-tolerance approach to sun exposure that has held sway with dermatologists since the 1970s. Holick, a professor of dermatology himself, lost his teaching position when he published his findings. When he wrote a book on the subject, he was targeted by a well-funded PR campaign aimed at debunking him by the leading dermatological organization. Supposedly objective journals refused to publish his exhaustively documented research—research now accepted as both accurate and pioneering.
An Emerging Scientific Consensus
About five years ago, the vitamin D climate began to change. Of late, Holick has finally received the recognition he deserves, and he now serves on multiple prestigious boards as well as advises the NIH. He is, incidentally, professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at the Boston University School of Medicine.
Holick explains that new breakthroughs in other areas have helped him make his case. With advances in computer processing and the decoding of the human genome, for example, it now appears that a remarkable 2,000 genes are influenced by vitamin D.
In retrospect, it's odd that the lessons learned from the rickets epidemic were not applied sooner to osteomalacia, which is essentially rickets of the aged. In fact, Dr. Holick and others have demonstrated that osteomalacia is preventable and treatable using vitamin D. Osteoporosis, for example, is also related to lack of vitamin D.
That discovery alone is legitimately worthy of a Nobel prize. In Holick's words, though, it's only the tip of the iceberg. Though Holick began documenting the connection between vitamin D insufficiencies or deficiencies and health problems thirty years ago, the scientific floodgates have opened only in the past few years.
Optimal vitamin D serum blood levels, attained through sunlight or supplementation, dramatically reduce the risk of many diseases other than bone maladies. Many of the most serious are ameliorated by an astonishing 50 to 85 percent. These diseases include cancers, from breast and colon to deadly melanoma skin cancers.
Yes, that's right. The really nasty skin cancers can be prevented by getting moderate, sensible sunshine or through vitamin D supplementation. Non-melanoma skin cancers do increase somewhat with sun exposure, especially with sunburns. These skin cancers, however, are relatively benign, as they don't tend to spread to other parts of the body. They're easily detected and removed because they appear on skin exposed to the sun.
Melanoma, on the other hand, is the deadly skin cancer that most people erroneously relate to sunshine. Melanomas, however, do not tend to occur on parts of the body that get direct sunlight. This not only argues against the notion that sunshine directly causes them, it makes them less likely to be detected. The bottom line, which is worth repeating, is that the incidence of truly nasty melanoma skin cancer goes down significantly with sensible exposure to UVB-containing sunshine or with vitamin D3 supplementation. Other effects of vitamin D include improved skin tone in general.
Wider Potential Benefits to Vitamin D Supplementation
This is not the end of the list, though. The big killers and most expensive diseases respond similarly to adequate D. I'm talking about hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. So do type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes (to a lesser extent), rheumatoid arthritis, peripheral vascular disease, multiple sclerosis, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and apparently even viral diseases such as H1N1 and AIDS.
It takes about 100 international units (IU) to raise serum blood levels by 1 ng/ml in a healthy adult. To get into the optimal range— 40 to 60 ng/ml—one would therefore have to take 4,000 IU daily. It would take even more if you were obese, are taking certain medications, or have one of a number of medical conditions that degrade or prevent the creation of usable D. The evidence, incidentally, is that 10,000IU is entirely safe.
Consider this projection: Once the requisite low-cost vitamin D therapies are fully adopted, Americans could save $50 billion annually in direct and indirect costs of disease. This in turn would have a real impact on our total healthcare spending.
My opinion, based on discussions with experts, is that adults who treat the big killers with sufficient vitamin D could see average increases in life expectancies of six to eight years.
Pertaining to UVB and latitude, Holick says that from Los Angeles south, UVB is present in sunshine year round, though it can be blocked by clouds. Even the palest among us will be unable to get sufficient UVB from sunshine in more northern latitudes. In Boston, for example, UVB is blocked by the angle of the sun from November through February. Edmonton, Canada has no UVB from mid-October through mid-April. Young people can store enough D during summer months to make it through the winter. Older people cannot.
Many of the benefits of D appear rapidly. Holick and others who prescribe D in clinical situations report that patients often experience dramatic improvements in quality of life within months. Not only do hypertension and bone density respond quickly, the neuromuscular impact of D is such that many of those who experience body pains and muscular weakness are quickly relieved when their serum blood levels are adjusted. Depression, irritable bowel syndrome, and various other maladies can respond extremely quickly to the sunshine vitamin.
The Future of Vitamin D Research and What to Do Now
Before giving you the links I promised, I'd like to make a few general observations. One is that in every age, much of the mainstream scientific establishment has considered itself to have achieved a final understanding of core scientific issues. It is also true that, in retrospect, it has never been the case. Science is rightly a process of discovery, not a set of established facts.
Recall one recent example of this authoritarian fatuousness: the US government dietary establishment's long insistence that fats are bad. My nutritional scientist wife told me decades ago that this was untrue. It took many years, however, before the importance of omega-3 fats was generally recognized. Remember when eggs, coffee, and chocolate were bad for you?
Moreover, change and scientific progress continue to accelerate at an unbelievable pace. The next decade will see accelerating breakthroughs in world-changing technologies. They include stem cell sciences, as well as RNA interference, cellular engineering, and other life-extending technologies.
The single best source for information about vitamin D and sunshine is Holick's book, The Vitamin D Solution: A 3-Step Strategy to Cure Our Most Common Health Problem. In keeping with the conventions of my profession, I should tell you that I have no personal financial interest in promoting Dr. Holick's book.
In the meantime, his website will provide you with far more information than is included in this article. Another useful site is Grassroots Health. This activist group includes leading scientists dedicated to increasing understanding of vitamin D.
While sunshine and vitamin D supplements do not have a direct "invest in this" recommendation I can give you, I can ask you to consider the bigger picture. If optimal levels of vitamin D can help you avoid disease, as the research suggests, vitamin D could be considered nature's easiest, most direct life-extension technique. This investment in your health is just as important as any market-based investment you could ever make.