Almost No One Gets Enough Of This Superstar Vitamin

If nutrients were on the cover of US Weekly, vitamin D would be a superstar.

It’s also probably one of the half dozen most important supplements you can take.

Let me explain.

New research is showing the importance of vitamin D in preventing cancer. We now know that it’s essential for bone strength. Sex hormones are made from the stuff. Populations that don’t get much sunlight are at greater risk for multiple sclerosis. And research has shown that physical performance—especially in older folks—is significantly affected by their vitamin D status.

Even weight loss is affected by vitamin D. One study showed that those with the lowest levels of vitamin D had the hardest time losing weight. And if that’s not enough, a major study found that low levels of vitamin D were associated with higher rates of mortality—from any cause whatsoever!

All this might not be much of a problem except for the fact that more than 25 percent of the population—and that’s being wildly conservative—is vitamin D deficient.

As of this writing the recommended daily allowance for vitamin D is 600 IU. I—and a growing body of nutritionists and doctors and health professionals—think that’s way too low. Oh, I’m being polite. We think it’s ridiculous. The current (paltry) levels of vitamin D recommendations are based mostly on vitamin D’s effects on bone health. But as Denise Houston, Ph.D., observes,  “Higher amounts of vitamin D may be needed for the preservation of muscle strength and physical function as well as other conditions such as cancer prevention.” But get this: Research from the Institute of Medicine shows that fully 50 percent of women aren’t getting even the paltry amount of vitamin D currently recommended, let alone the revised, more optimal level.

So we know for a fact that women are lacking vitamin D. What about men?

Not long ago, the website Medical News Today asked the rhetorical question, “How do we get men more interested in vitamin D?” The site reported that most men could care less. But what if vitamin D were linked to the kinds of things that get guys’ attention? Performance? Sex? Hair growth?

Well, vitamin D may not grow hair on bald heads, but new research is showing that it significantly impacts performance and may be especially important for older adults. Research from Wake Forest University School of Medicine shows that older adults who don’t get enough vitamin D are at increased risk for both poor physical performance and for disability. More than 900 people over sixty-five years of age from two towns in Italy were tested on their walking speed, their ability to stand from a chair, and their ability to maintain balance in a variety of positions. They were also tested on handgrip strength, which seems to predict future disability very well.

The results? Those who had low levels of vitamin D were about 5 to 10 percent lower in most measures of performance. A completely different 2007 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism with a randomized Dutch population showed virtually identical results and arrived at a similar conclusion.

When Medical News Today continued its discussion of “how do we get guys interested in vitamin D?” they put it to their readers this way: “Actually, what we are asking is: Does the most potent steroid hormone system in the human body have any effects on balance, muscle strength, muscle mass, reaction time, etc.?” Well, when you put it that way, fellas…. Interestingly, two studies that looked at physical fitness and athletic performance found that physical fitness peaked in late summer when vitamin D levels are at their highest.

Older adults are especially susceptible to low levels of vitamin D because number one, they get less sun exposure, and two, their skin is less efficient in producing vitamin D from the sun in the first place. And it’s not easy to get enough vitamin D from food sources.

The scientist who’s done the most research on vitamin D and the one who’s been sounding the alarm the loudest about our collective vitamin D deficiency and the need for smart sun exposure is Michael Holick, M.D. He’s written a great book called The Vitamin D Solution, which I highly recommend. He’s looked at the vitamin D levels of pregnant mothers coming into his hospital, and also at the vitamin D levels of their infants once they were born. He found that 76 percent of the mothers were severely vitamin D deficient, and 81 percent of their infants were as well.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 42 percent of African American women were deficient in vitamin D during their childbearing years, especially at the end of winter time. In fact, African Americans are especially at risk for vitamin D deficiency because having dark skin is like wearing a permanent sun protection factor of 15 to 30. Holick says that even 48 percent of Caucasian girls aged 9 to 11 are deficient in vitamin D at the end of the winter, and 17 percent of them remain so at the end of the summer because they’re all wearing sunblock.