Long-term Medial Benefits of Vitamin D

Vitamin D plays a huge role in your health. The most important area in the past has been bone health in children and adults, but many researchers think that vitamin D’s other functions may be equally important.

Prevention of deformity

The major and most well-know role of vitamin D over the years has been preventing rickets in children. When vitamin D isn’t present in sufficient amounts during growth, the bones don’t lengthen properly or become properly mineralized. As a result, the weight of the body makes the bones become curved, deformed, painful, and tender, and they fracture easily – a condition known as rickets. Rickets affects all bones, including the teeth and the spine. Vitamin D is also essential for normal development and maintenance of muscles, and in rickets the muscles are greatly weakened, tender, and sore.

When rickets occurs in adults it’s called osteomalacia, and it doesn’t lead to deformity because the bone structure has already formed. It does, however, lead to weak bones and muscles, and pain in muscles and bones that responds to vitamin D.

Rickets was a rare disease until many people began to leave farms and migrate to cities during the Industrial Revolution. The sun didn’t penetrate the pollution as easily, and people stayed indoors most of the day. Nowadays, rickets is still rare in many places; however, it’s making a comeback in racial groups with dark skin and in places where people cover up their skin for religious or social reasons. In fact, some of the lowest vitamin D levels are seen in countries close to the equator where typical outdoor clothing has the head and entire body covered.

Unless the mother takes a very high dose supplement of vitamin D, human breast milk contains little or no vitamin D. As a result babies who are exclusively breastfed are more likely to become deficient than babies who receive vitamin D-fortified baby formulas. Also, babies born of mothers who were low in vitamin D during pregnancy are even more likely to develop rickets in the weeks to months after birth.

Lives saved?

Some scientists feel that the value of vitamin D in health has been underestimated. However, it’s hard to estimate the effects of vitamin D, for several reasons:

• The experts don’t agree on what constitutes “sufficient levels” of vitamin D in your blood.
• All of vitamin D’s various contributions to health aren’t fully known.
• Controversy exists over whether some of the proposed non-bone effects of vitamin D are real, particularly those effects on chronic diseases that take years to develop, like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. For example, some studies have shown that a lower intake of vitamin D is associated with a higher risk of heart disease. This could be because the people that took less vitamin D may also have exercised less, smoked more, and had other poor lifestyle habits. A definitive answer requires conducting a study that randomly compares two similar groups – one that gets the vitamin and the other that doesn’t.

Although these randomized studies are very expensive and hard to do, fortunately a large randomized study called VITAL is under way in the USA which is testing the effects of vitamin D on cancer and heart disease outcomes. So we may have a definitive answer to these questions as to whether vitamin D prevents heart disease and cancer in the next five years or so.

In the meantime, by using studies that associate serum vitamin D levels to the risk that a person may develop a disease, and assuming that the low vitamin D is causing the disease of interest, a number of scientists have tried to approximate the number of lives that could be saved by improving vitamin D intake. Using such associational studies, these scientists have come up with some interesting numbers.

They estimate that if Canadians brought their vitamin D levels up to healthy levels, an estimated 37,000 lives a year would be saved.

Scientists proposed that the following benefits would be achieved:

• A 25 percent decline in cancer rates
• A 25 percent decline in heart disease
• A 60 percent improvement in insulin sensitivity, thus protecting against diabetes
• Reduction in the risk fo multiple sclerosis
• A 30 percent reduction in the risk of pneumonia
• A 50 percent reduction in Cesarean sections
• Complete elimination of rickets and substantial reduction in the rate of osteoporosis

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