Low Vitamin D: A Global Concern

Recent studies suggest that vitamin D is much more important in fighting off disease than previously thought. Being deficient in this vitamin puts one at risk of diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis, and multiple sclerosis. Chances are that if you live in a northerly geographic region you do not get enough vitamin D. Persons who live a rather sedentary lifestyle and do not get outside for at least a 15-minute daily walk in the sun are in the same position. Latinos, African-Americans and others with dark skin tend to have much lower levels of vitamin D, as do people who are overweight or obese. All around the world millions of persons suffer from vitamin D deficiency. This phenomenon is so common that it affects persons on every continent, of all ethnic groups, and across all ages. Some surveys suggest that perhaps half of the world’s population has inadequate blood levels of vitamin D. Sadly, physicians, even in industrialized countries, are seeing the resurgence of rickets, the bone-weakening disease that had been largely eradicated through vitamin D fortification.

As with most research findings, there is plenty of debate. Indeed, as opposed to what many people think, there are few certainties in science; its nature is to be open to criticism, discussion, and revision. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report in November 2010 which recommends a daily vitamin D intake of 600 IU per day, for people ages 1 to 70, and 800 IU, for people over age 70—the report referred to persons living in the U.S. and Canada. The report also recognized the safety of vitamin D by increasing the upper limit from 2,000 to 4,000 IU per day, and acknowledged that even at 4,000 IU per day, there was no good evidence of harm.

Some in the scientific community believe the new guidelines are too conservative about the intake, and that they do not give due consideration to the latest findings about vitamin D and health. They contend that the new guidelines are not enough to prevent chronic disease, and they are not sufficient to help those who have problems with their bones. This is an important debate, and in order to understand it better it is necessary to know the origins of vitamin D and how it functions in the human body.

Vitamin D Sources and Function

Our body makes vitamin D and it is also a nutrient we eat. The body produces vitamin D from cholesterol, which itself is triggered by sun lighting on the skin. Yet many persons do not make enough vitamin D from the sun, persons with darker skin, those who are overweight, and persons who use products that block sunlight being among them. Correctly applied sunscreen reduces our ability to absorb vitamin D by more than 90 percent.

To be sure, not all sunlight is of the same quality and intensity: The sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays—the so-called “tanning” rays, and the rays that trigger the skin to produce vitamin D—are stronger near the equator and weaker at higher latitudes. Indeed, persons who live in places prone to considerable cloudiness and rain can suffer from vitamin D deficiency. The other way we get vitamin D is to eat food that contains a lot of it. However, few foods are naturally rich in vitamin D, so the biggest dietary sources of vitamin D are fortified foods and vitamins supplements.

Vitamin D helps the body absorb and retains calcium and phosphorus, which are critical elements for building bone. Laboratory studies show that vitamin D can reduce cancer cell growth, can increase muscle strength, and can help control infections. There may yet be other functions for vitamin D, and scientists continue to explore the many other uses for this important substance.

New Vitamin D Research: Beyond Building Bones

Vitamin D research has proved to be of considerable fecundity. Although there have been many reports issued over the years, there are only a few that offer enough evidence to constitute a clear medical breakthrough. Here we provide the more promising areas of vitamin D research, highlighting the complex role of vitamin D in disease prevention—and the many unanswered questions that remain.

Vitamin D and Bone and Muscle Strength

A number of random trials have shown that high doses of vitamin D supplements help reduce bone fractures. A summary of the evidence comes from a combined analysis of 12 fracture prevention trials that included more than 40,000 elderly people, most of them women. Researchers found that high intakes of vitamin D supplements—of about 800 IU per day—reduced hip and non-spine fractures by over 20 percent, while lower intakes (400 IU or less) failed to offer any fracture prevention benefit.

It has been shown that vitamin D may also help increase muscle strength, which can help prevent elderly persons from falling, a common problem that leads to increased rates of disability and death among them. A combined meta-analysis found that taking 700 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day lowered the risk of falls by 19 percent; the combined studies also show that taking 200 to 600 IU per day offered no such protection. Based on this data, the International Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that adults over age 60 maintain vitamin D blood levels of 30ng/ml. This means that most people will need vitamin D supplements of at least 800 to 1,000 IU per day, and possibly higher, to reach these levels.

Vitamin D and Heart Disease

The heart, as a skeletal muscle, is a receptor of vitamin D. A number of studies have found that lack of vitamin D is linked to heart disease. The Health Professional Follow-Up Study observed the vitamin D blood levels in nearly 50,000 men who were healthy. They followed the same group for 10 years and found that men who were low in vitamin D were twice as likely to have a heart attack as men who had adequate levels of vitamin D. Other studies have linked low vitamin D levels to an increased of heart failure, sudden cardiac death, stroke, overall cardiovascular disease, and cardiovascular death. There is some evidence that vitamin D plays a vital role in controlling blood pressure and preventing artery damage. This goes some ways in explaining the findings above. However, more research is needed before a sounder conclusion can be made.

Vitamin D and Cancer

Nearly 30 years ago, researchers discovered an interesting correlation between colon cancer deaths and geographic location. They found that people who lived at higher latitudes, such as in the northern U.S. or Canada, had higher rates of death from colon cancer than people who lived closer to the equator. The sun’s UVB rays are weaker at higher latitudes, and in turn, people’s vitamin D levels in these high latitude locales tend to be lower. Researchers formed the hypothesis that vitamin D deficiency can lead to an increased risk for getting colon cancer

Some time has passed, but dozens of studies suggest a relationship does exist between low vitamin D levels and increased risks of colon and other cancers. The evidence is strongest for colorectal cancer, with observational studies have found that persons with lower vitamin D levels are at higher risk of getting such diseases. Vitamin D levels may also predict cancer survival, but there is as yet little evidence to support this. However, it is not yet certain that taking vitamin D supplements necessarily lowers the risk of contracting cancer. This latter idea will be tested in the VITAL trial. The VITAL trial will look specifically at whether vitamin D supplements lower cancer risk. However, it is likely to be years before the trial produces any results. Additionally, the VITAL trial could fail to detect a real benefit of vitamin D. There are several reasons for this. First, if people in the placebo group decide to take their own vitamin D supplements, the differences between the placebo group and the supplement group could be minimized. Second, the study may not follow participants for a long enough time to show a cancer prevention benefit; or study participants may be starting supplements too late in life to lower their cancer risk.

In any case, given the evidence now on hand, 16 scientists have circulated a “call for action” on vitamin D and cancer prevention. Given the high rates of vitamin D inadequacy in North America, the strong evidence for reduction of osteoporosis and fractures, the potential cancer-fighting benefits of vitamin D, and the low risk of vitamin D supplementation, these scientists recommend vitamin D supplementation of 2,000 IU per day. The Canadian Cancer Society has also recommended that Canadian adults consider taking vitamin D supplements of 1,000 IU per day during the fall and winter. They also recommend that people who are at high risk of having low vitamin D levels because of old age, dark skin, or geographic location take vitamin D supplements year round.

Toxins and Pollutants

Toxicity surrounds us – it’s the air, the water, and the soil. I urge you to take responsibility for reducing the toxic load on your body by following a few simple lifestyle rules.

EAT CLEAN The most important thing you can do for cancer prevention is to eat organic food. Studies show that the breast tissue of women with breast cancer contains more pesticides than that of women with benign breast problems. If you do buy non-organic, wash it thoroughly and peel fruit and vegetables.

CHOOSE COSMETICS CAREFULLY Deodorants and antiperspirants contain preservatives called parabens, which have been found inside breast-cancer tumors and can have an estrogen-like effect on the body (and also aluminum, which has been linked to dementia). In addition, antiperspirants prevent the body from expelling toxins through sweat, so the toxins remain locked in your system. I advise you to avoid antiperspirants altogether and instead use a chemical-free or crystal deodorant that does not contain parabens and won’t stop you from sweating, but will stop any body odor.

Whenever you use face creams, suntan lotions, body lotions, hair-removing agents, and so on, make sure you read the ingredient list and ask yourself if you could choose a more natural alternative. Many cosmetics, especially perfumes, contain xenoestrognes in the artificial “musks” that give them their scent.

AVOID XENOESTROGENS EVERYWHERE In addition to all this, artificial estrogens may be found in baby bottles, plastic containers, water bottles, and tooth fillings, and in paints and plastics. Keep your exposure to anything contained in these items to a minimum.

Cancer Prevention

Cancer is a group of diseases caused by an uncontrolled growth of cells. The following is a list of recommendations for steps to take to avoid cancer. It is adapted from a list found on the websites of the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund. This list was compiled from extensive research analyzation performed by scientists from these two foundations. Keep in mind that these suggestions are generalized, and each person has individual requirements for health. Therefore, you should see an anti-aging specialist and have your vitamins levels measured to determine a plan that will work specifically for you.

• Keep your weight at a healthy level for your height
• Get daily exercise
• Limit consumption of food and drinks high in sugar, low in fiber, and high in fat
• Increase consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans
• Avoid both red and processed meats
• Don’t eat too much salt
• Keep alcohol intake to a minimum. Men should have no more than two drinks daily; women should have no more than one drink daily
• Avoid both smoking and chewing tobacco
• Mothers should breastfeed babies for six months after giving birth
• Cancer survivors should keep their weight at a healthy level to lessen the chance of the cancer’s return

In addition to the above recommendations, the following foods were named by the National Foundation for Cancer Research as the “Top 10 Cancer Fighting Foods”. Included after each food is the cancer-fighting agents it contains.

• Acorn squash (contain beta-carotene)
• Apples (contain phytochemicals)
• Berries (contain fiber, vitamin C, phytochemicals, potassium, and vitamin B9 and are antioxidants)
• Extra virgin olive oil (contains phytochemicals with antioxidants and vitamin E)
• Pumpkins (contain beta carotene)
• Mineral, seltzer, or spring water, as well as decaffeinated tea (all of which help with digestion and other bodily functions)
• Peppers (contain potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin B9)
• Sweet potatoes (contain beta carotene)
• Tomatoes and tomato-based products (contain lycopene, which is an antioxidant)

Superfruits

Everyone should eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Scientific evidence reveals that fruits and vegetables, which are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytonutrients, can help prevent disease and boost overall health. Recently, several novel fruits have gained popularity throughout America for their incredible nutritional value. These “superfruits” include acai berry, mangosteen, goji berry and the more familiar pomegranate.

Acai Berry

The acai berry is small purple fruit that is as great tasting as it is healthy, thanks to its high content of powerful antioxidants. Acai is native to the swamps and floodplains of Central and South America, but today acai products – capsules, powders, juices and more – are readily available from health food stores. Web sites and even warehouse clubs.

The main sources of antioxidants is acai are anthocyanins, the pigments that give the berries their purple color. Acai contains 10 to 33 times the amount of anthocyanins found in red wine, which researchers have studied for its role in preventing heart disease. Acai is more than a source of antioxidants – the berry also contains amino acids, unsaturated fats and phytosterols, all of which promote health throughout the entire body.

Nutritional Benefits of Acai

Phytosterols

Acai contains beta-sitosterol and other valuable phytosterols. Phytosterols, also referred to as plant sterols, are natural substances with chemical structures similar to that of cholesterol. Phytosterols are found in plant cells and membranes and provide numerous benefits to the human body: they reduce harmful cholesterol levels; they may support immune system health; they may even be an effective treatment for benign prostate hyperplasia, a common condition among middle-aged and elderly men.

Other Nutrients

Acai is rich in calcium, vitamins C and E, unsaturated fats, iron, manganese, chromium, copper and boron. The acai berry is so rich in nutrients, it could almost be considered a multivitamin in the form of a fruit!

Acai and Health 

Acai’s abundant nutrients have important effects on your health.

Fiber for Digestive Support and Cancer Prevention

Acai is an excellent source of fiber. Research demonstrates that a high-fiber diet can help protect against cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Many people only get about half the fiber they need each day, but adding acai and other fruits and vegetables to the diet can help fill that gap.

Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Many health experts believe that inflammation, which occurs as a result of disease, injuries and autoimmune disorders (when the body attacks its own tissues), may contribute to the development of some chronic diseases. Acai contains powerful antioxidants that help alleviate inflammation by neutralizing enzymes that attack connective tissues.

Protection for Blood Vessels

Free radicals damage the endothelial cells that line blood vessel walls. This damage eventually leads to a buildup of arterial plaque, which can lead to atherosclerosis and heart disease. By protecting endothelial cells from free radicals, the anthocyanins in acai support blood vessel health and protect against cardiovascular disease.

Effects of Diabetes

Diabetic retinopathy is a severe complication of diabetes in which elevated blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue in the eye. Severe cases of retinopathy may cause blindness; in fact, diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in American adults. Anthocyanins protect against this capillary damage by preventing free radical damage to the circulatory system.

What Resveratrol Can Do for You

Scientists around the world have discovered many ways that resveratrol may benefit heart health. In 1995, Canadian researchers reported that resveratrol could protect against heart disease by reducing platelet aggregation, an early step in the development of blood clots that can lead to heart attacks or strokes. In 2002, German researchers found that resveratrol stimulates production of nitrous oxide, which helps relax arteries. In 2003, Italian researchers provided evidence that resveratrol could reduce the risk of atherosclerosis by keeping inflammatory cells from sticking to artery walls. Later that year, American researchers reported that resveratrol could slow the progression of atherosclerosis by inhibiting the spread of vascular smooth muscle cells.

Resveratrol may also pay a role in cancer prevention, by inhibiting certain enzymes that activate some carcinogens and by promoting the excretion of other carcinogens. When cancer has already taken hold, resveratrol can arrest the cell cycle of cancer cells (allowing for DNA repair) and induce apoptosis (programmed cell death). Resveratrol can also inhibit cancer cell proliferation and angiogenesis, the process through which tumors support their growth by creating new blood vessels.

Resveratrol and Bioavailability

In vitro studies have shown resveratrol to have many potent actions, and resveratrol is well absorbed in the gut; however, some researchers question whether the effects shown in the laboratory can take place in the body. In the May 2005 issue of the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, scientists from the German Research Center of Food Chemistry wrote, “The oral bioavailability of resveratrol is almost zero due to rapid and extensive metabolism”. In other words, very little resveratrol makes it into the blood.

The German researchers were not the first to discover this, however. In 2004, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina acknowledged the low bioavailability of oral resveratrol, but suggested that resveratrol accumulates and provides benefits along the digestive tract. And in the November 2000 issue of the journal Xenobiotica, Italian researchers provided evidence that flavonoids and other components of grapes and wine improve the bioavailability of resveratrol.

Some researchers have taken a different approach to the problem of oral resveratrol bioavailability by skipping the stomach altogether. Using a delivery system known as PEGylated liposomes, supplements can deliver resveratrol through the mucous membranes in the mouth and directly to the blood. However, even resveratrol delivered directly to the blood is rapidly metabolized by the liver and removed from the blood in as little as 30 minutes.

However, low bioavailability does not mean resveratrol is useless; some researchers feel that it means investigators should shift their focus. For example, the previously mentioned German researchers suggest that future research focus on the effects of resveratrol metabolites.

The Bottom Line

Grape seed extract contains powerful antioxidants and can reduce oxidation, strengthen and repair connective tissue and promote enzyme activity. It can also help moderate allergic and inflammatory responses by reducing histamine production. These actions help fight disease and boost your immune system. If you want to improve your chances against disease, enhance your health and fight the effects of aging, grape seed extract can help.

Grape Seed Extract and Resveratrol Fast Facts

Uses and Benefits: Grape seed extract is an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory, an antihistamine and an antiallergenic. It also improves circulation, promotes healing, restores collagen and strengthens weak blood vessels.

Sources: Grape seed extract is available at most health food stores. There are many different brands with different levels of active constituents, so ask your local supplement provider for recommendations.

Some of the beneficial nutrients in grape seed extract are also available in other foods. Resveratrol is found in grapes (and grape products such as red wine and purple grape juice), peanuts and some berries.

OPCs are found in many types of foods – usually in the peels, skins or seeds – but usually only in extremely small amounts. Some of the best sources are seasonal fruits such as grapes, blueberries, cherries and plums. Grape seeds contain the highest known concentration (95 percent) of OPCs, and pine bark the second highest (80 to 85 percent). Food processing and storage time reduce OPC bioavailability.

Other Names: Another name for OPC complex is Pycnogenol. This was the name originally given to the complex by Dr. Jacques Masquelier, the first to scientifically discover OPCs. Dr. Masquelier patented the process of extracting OPCs from the bark of maritime pine trees, and Pycnogenol is now a trademarked name for OPC products extracted from pine bark.

Prevention of cancer

Population-based (epidemiological) studies have clearly demonstrated that a diet high in beta-carotene is protective against a variety of cancers. The evidence is much stronger for beta-carotene than for vitamin A, presumably because beta-carotene exerts greater antioxidant and immune enhancing effects than vitamin A.

While there is little doubt that a diet high in carotenes is protective against cancer, the same cannot be said about beta-carotene. Based upon current evidence, it appears that on its own, synthetic beta-carotene supplementation does not prevent cancer. Large cancer prevention trials with synthetic beta-carotene in high-risk groups have produced negative results. In fact, the results of these studies indicate that synthetic beta-carotene supplementation may actually increase the risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease if people continue to smoke. The data strongly suggest that the protection offered by beta-carotene is apparent only when other important antioxidant nutrients (e.g., vitamins C and E and selenium) are provided. The results seem to indicate the need for a diet high in carotenes; if carotene supplementation is desired, people should not smoke, and they should protect against the formation of toxic beta-carotene derivatives by taking extra vitamin C and E and selenium.