High blood pressure. High blood sugar. Unhealthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Excess abdominal (belly) fat. If you were to look into a crowd of Americans, say, at a football game or large concert, and start counting how many of them could check off all of these conditions as relating to them, you’d be tagging one of every six people. That’s forty-seven million Americans. Collectively, this set of conditions has a strange name: metabolic syndrome, or, stranger still, syndrome X. You may not intuitively put high blood pressure, for example, in the same category as metabolism, but all of these conditions share a unique relationship. And when they combine in the body, they can have an epic impact. These risk factors double your risk of blood-vessel and heart disease, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. They increase your risk of diabetes by five times.
When you hear the word diabetes, most likely it’s related to type 2, so-called adult onset diabetes. It’s the most common form of diabetes; of the 23.6 million people with diabetes, 90 percent to 95 percent have type 2. Like type 1, this form disrupts the body’s ability to metabolize sugar for fuel, but type 2 is not an autoimmune disease. In type 2 diabetes, the beta cells of the pancreas continue to make insulin, but when there is too much fat, there is a resistance to insulin, so the body cannot use it effectively. When that happens, a person is said to be insulin resistant and prediabetic. As the disease progresses, insulin production slows down after several years, and the result is similar to what occurs in type 1 diabetes: glucose, the body’s preferred form of energy, builds up in the blood and the body cannot efficient use of its main source of fuel.
Unlike type 1, this form of diabetes is associated with older age, obesity, a family history of diabetes, physical inactivity, and ethnicity. About 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight, which is why this type gets so much media exposure now that obesity rates have soared. For some, reversing this disease is possible through changes in diet and exercise habits. But for others, the ravages of this disease can make for a long struggle that destroys the quality of life and brings a complicated morass of medical challenges.
Because activated vitamin D can increase insulin production, it’s no surprise that research has indicated that UVB radiation – and hence, adequate levels of vitamin D in the body – may have an indirect role in preventing type 2 diabetes. We have yet to learn the exact effect vitamin D has on the risk for type 2 diabetes, but the evidence continues to collect showing a clear association between sufficient vitamin D and efficient cellular metabolism. Numerous longitudinal studies have consistently demonstrated that people who suffer from type 2 diabetes typically have low vitamin D levels.
A lack of vitamin D is related to both insulin resistance and impaired pancreatic beta cells, which are the sources of insulin for the body’s metabolism and which do possess vitamin D receptors. In studies done with mice, beta cells lose their capacity to secrete insulin when their vitamin D receptor isn’t functioning as it should because of low vitamin D.
In 2004, researchers at UCLA unveiled their findings after trying to make better sense of the CARDIA (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) Study, a population-based look at vitamin D’s role in metabolic syndrome. The CARDIA Study examined a sampling of 3,157 black and white adults aged eighteen to thirty years from four metropolitan areas in the United States. What it found was that among over-weight adults, the more milk peo9pel drank, the less likely they were to be insulin resistant. The numbers, in fact, are quite staggering – people with the highest dairy consumption had a 72 percent lower incidence of metabolic syndrome. The study concluded that dairy consumption could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The UCLA team confirmed this conclusion in its own study and reported specifically on how higher levels of vitamin D correlated to this lowered risk.
Even more revealing have been the studies done on the effect both vitamin D and calcium – the high-powered couple – can have on reducing one’s risk for diabetes. One large study published in 2006 by Diabetes Care that looked at middle-aged women concluded that a high daily intake of vitamin D (greater than 800 IU) and calcium (greater than 1,200 milligrams) was associated with a 33 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetics tend to be stuck in a vicious cycle whereby they battle weight problems and lack the energy or motivation to exercise, precipitating other health challenges – from their overworked organs to their inability to get a good night’s sleep. The number of potential hazards that flow from their condition and resulting secondary conditions is practically limitless. Add to that a vitamin D deficiency, knowing all the areas in which vitamin D can have a positive impact, and you can quickly grasp the magnitude and intricacy of this problem. Achieving a break in the cycle typically requires a complete lifestyle and dietary change, as well as a focus on reducing stress levels that can thwart weight-loss efforts and perpetuate hormonal imbalances.
In the last few years, the spotlight has been turned on teens, who are currently changing the actuarial tables. Soaring obesity rates among our adolescents may actually shift their longevity, snipping two to five years off their life spans as compared to their parents’. And new research has also linked low levels of vitamin D to high blood pressure and high blood sugar in this age group – the very risk factors for heart disease and conditions associated with this elusive metabolic syndrome. A team of researchers found that teens with the lowest vitamin D levels were more than twice as likely to have high blood pressure and high blood sugar than those with higher vitamin D levels. They were also four times more likely to have metabolic syndrome than their counterparts with optimal levels of vitamin D. The vitamin D-deficiency pattern was consistent with earlier findings in that blacks had the lowest levels, followed by the Mexican Americans; whites had the highest levels, but all of the teens showed a deficiency. Further research will determine the extent to which vitamin D lies behind these health problems and how much of an impact it can have in preventing, treating, and reverting these problems.