By Dr. Mercola
For many of you, the hint of spring is on the horizon and the opportunity to finally expose your skin to healthy doses of sunshine is very close. Remember that this is a far better choice than using oral vitamin D, as that is how your body was designed to get healthy vitamin D levels.
There are many reasons to be conscious of vitamin D, but today's featured study will focus on breast health. A robust and rapidly growing body of research clearly shows that vitamin D is absolutely critical for good health and disease prevention, in part due to the fact that it influences about 10 percent of all your genes.
Just one example of an important gene that vitamin D up-regulates is your ability to fight infections and chronic inflammation. It also produces over 200 anti-microbial peptides, the most important of which is cathelicidin, a naturally occurring broad-spectrum antibiotic.
Recent studies demonstrate how optimizing your vitamin D levels may lower your LDL cholesterol levels and double your chances of surviving breast cancer. Researchers also claim to have discovered a causal link between vitamin D deficiency and autism spectrum disorder.
Vitamin D for Breast Cancer
Since the early 2000s, scientific investigations into the effects of vitamin D have ballooned. By the end of 2012, there were nearly 34,000 published studies on the effects of vitamin D, and there are well over 800 references in the medical literature showing vitamin D's effectiveness against cancer alone.
According to Carole Baggerly, founder of GrassrootsHealth, as much as 90 percent of ordinary breast cancer may in fact be related to vitamin D deficiency.
Most recently, a meta-analysis of five studies published in the March 2014 issue of Anticancer Research1 found that patients diagnosed with breast cancer who had high vitamin D levels were twice as likely to survive compared to women with low levels.2, 3, 4
The analysis included more than 4,500 breast cancer patients over a nine-year period. The high serum group had an average vitamin D level of 30 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). Women in the low serum group averaged 17 ng/ml, which is the average vitamin D level found in American breast cancer patients.5
The study was co-authored by Professor Cedric F. Garland—featured in the 2011 video above—along with other researchers at the San Diego School of Medicine. Funding for the research6 was in part provided by a Congressional allocation to the Penn State Cancer Institute of the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
Vitamin D has a number of anticancer effects, including the promotion of cancer cell death, known as apoptosis, and the inhibition of angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels that feed a tumor). According to Dr. Garland:
"As long as vitamin D receptors were present, tumor growth was prevented and kept from expanding its blood supply. Vitamin D receptors are not lost until a tumor is very advanced. This is the reason for better survival in patients whose vitamin D blood levels are high."
The researchers urge physicians to make vitamin D monitoring and optimization part of standard breast cancer care, and recommend that breast cancer patients should restore their vitamin D levels to a normal range of 30-80 ng/ml. According to the featured findings, you need at least 30 ng/ml of serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) to prevent cancer from spreading. That said, other research suggests you'd be better off with levels as high as 80 ng/ml.
How Much Vitamin D Is Required for Breast Cancer Prevention?
In 2011, Dr. Garland's team found that a vitamin D level of 50 ng/ml is associated with a 50 percent lower risk of breast cancer.7, 8 (Similarly, a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine9 concluded that a vitamin D level of more than 33 ng/mL was associated with a 50 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer.)
In the featured video above, GrassrootsHealth founder Carole Baggerly interviews Dr. Garland about those 2011 findings.
At that time, they discovered that in order to achieve protective levels, you have to take far more supplemental vitamin D than previously thought. To reach a minimum protective level of 40 ng/ml of vitamin D, study participants had to take anywhere from 1,000 IUs to as much as 8,000 IUs of vitamin D3 per day—a far cry from the recommended daily allowance of 600 IUs of vitamin D for adults.
The supplemental dose ensuring that 97.5 percent of the study population achieved a serum 25(OH)D of at least 40 ng/mL was 9,600 IU/day. This study also concluded that intake of up to 40,000 IUs per day is unlikely to result in vitamin D toxicity.
It's important to note, however, that it's virtually impossible to make a general recommendation on how much vitamin D to take as the amount needed can vary significantly from one individual to another. In essence, you need to regularly monitor your levels, and take whatever amount of vitamin D3 you need to maintain a clinically relevant level.
Vitamin D May Also Benefit Your Cholesterol Level
In related news, a recently published study10 found that vitamin D in combination with calcium appears to reduce LDL cholesterol levels in postmenopausal women. As reported by the New York Times:11
"Researchers randomly assigned 576 postmenopausal women to either a daily dose of 400 units of vitamin D and 1,000 milligrams of calcium, or a placebo. They followed them for three years. By the end of the study, published in Menopause,12 the vitamin D group had significantly higher serum levels of vitamin D, and a small but notable drop in LDL."
Women taking a combination of vitamin D and calcium had a 4.46 mg/dL mean decrease in LDL cholesterol. Previous research by Dr. Stephanie Seneff also suggests that healthy cholesterol and sulfur levels are highly dependent on your vitamin D levels. Through her research, she believes that the mechanism we call "cardiovascular disease," of which arterial plaque is a hallmark, is actually your body's way to compensate for not having enough cholesterol sulfate.
Sun Exposure Is Likely the IDEAL Way to Optimize Your Vitamin D Levels
To summarize Dr. Seneff's findings, high LDL appears to be a sign of cholesterol sulfate deficiency. According to Dr. Seneff, your body's way of trying to maintain the correct balance is to take damaged LDL and turn it into plaque. Within this plaque, your blood platelets produce cholesterol sulfate, which your heart and brain needs for optimal function.
Her research also suggests that in order to truly optimize your cholesterol levels, you really need to get your vitamin D from sun exposure, and here's why: when you expose your skin to sunshine, your skin synthesizes vitamin D3 sulfate. This form of vitamin D is water-soluble, unlike oral vitamin D3 supplements, which is unsulfated. The water-soluble form can travel freely in your blood stream, whereas the unsulfated form needs LDL (the so-called "bad" cholesterol) as a vehicle of transport. Dr. Seneff suspects that the simple oral non-sulfated form of vitamin D likely will not provide the same benefits as the vitamin D created in your skin from sun exposure, as it cannot be converted to vitamin D sulfate.
If you're still under the mistaken impression that sun exposure is the primary cause of skin cancer, the following explanation may be of great help. Dr. Seneff states that:
"Both cholesterol and sulfur afford protection in the skin from radiation damage to the cell's DNA, the kind of damage that can lead to skin cancer. Cholesterol and sulfur become oxidized upon exposure to the high frequency rays in sunlight, thus acting as antioxidants to 'take the heat,' so to speak. Oxidation of cholesterol is the first step in the process by which cholesterol transforms itself into vitamin D3."
Additionally, distorted omega-3 to omega-6 ratios play a major role in the development of skin cancers too. In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences published a comprehensive review13 showing that the omega 6:3 ratio was the key to preventing skin cancer development. An Australian study14 published in 1993 showed a 40 percent reduction in melanoma for those who were eating fish, which is rich in omega-3s. And this was without any attention to lowering omega-6 fats. Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are both essential for human health. However, the typical American consumes far too many omega-6 fats in their diet while consuming very low levels of omega-3. While the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is 1:1, our ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 averages from 20:1 to 50:1.
Evidence of Causal Link Between Vitamin D, Serotonin Synthesis, and Autism Emerges
Vitamin D may also be critical in the fight against autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to a study15, 16 by the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, vitamin D may affect autistic behavior by activating a gene responsible for the production of tryptophan hydroxylase 2 (TPH2), an enzyme that converts tryptophan to serotonin in your brain. The research also shows that two other brain hormones associated with social behavior, oxytocin and vasopressin, are activated by vitamin D. As reported by Newswise:17
"This suggests that adequate levels of vitamin D may be required to produce serotonin in the brain where it shapes the structure and wiring of the brain, acts as a neurotransmitter, and affects social behavior. They also found evidence that the gene that makes the enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase 1 (TPH1) is inhibited by vitamin D hormone, which subsequently halts the production of serotonin in the gut and other tissues, where when found in excess it promotes inflammation.
This mechanism explains many of the known, but previously not understood, facts about autism including: 1) the 'serotonin anomaly' low levels of serotonin in the brain and high levels in the blood of autistic children; 2) the preponderance of male over female autistic children: estrogen, a similar steroid hormone, can also boost the brain levels of serotonin in girls; 3) the presence of autoimmune antibodies to the fetal brain in the mothers of autistic children: vitamin D regulates the production of regulatory T-cells via repression of TPH1"
The researchers propose treating ASD with a combination of vitamin D, tryptophan, and omega-3 fats in order to naturally elevate the concentration of brain serotonin without side effects. This isn't the first time vitamin D has been implicated as a contributing factor to rising autism rates. According to previous research,18 there is indeed a link between rampant vitamin D deficiency in pregnant women and the proportionate jump in autism. The reason for this is because vitamin D receptors appear in a wide variety of brain tissue early in the fetal development, and activated vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in your brain.
It is my personal belief that this may be one of the largest contributing factors to autism and that it is a deficiency of sun exposure to the pregnant mom, and subsequently to the fetus, that puts the child at a massively increased risk for abnormal brain development. I believe one of the most important changes that could radically reduce autism is to make sure ALL pregnant women have their vitamin D levels normalized to 50-70 ng/ml.
Have You Tested Your Vitamin D Level Yet?
Right now, after several months of winter and minimal sun exposure, is an ideal time to test your vitamin D levels to get an idea of what your levels are at their lowest. If you're low, take proactive measures to raise your levels, and then retest in mid-summer.
The D*Action Project by GrassrootsHealth is a very cost effective solution. To participate, simply purchase the D*Action Measurement Kit and follow the registration instructions included. (Please note that 100 percent of the proceeds from the kits go to fund the research project. I do not charge a single dime as a distributor of the test kits.)
As a participant, you agree to test your vitamin D levels twice a year during a five-year study, and share your health status to demonstrate the public health impact of this nutrient. There is a $65 fee every six months for your sponsorship of this research project, which includes a test kit to be used at home, and electronic reports on your ongoing progress. You will get a follow up email every six months reminding you "it's time for your next test and health survey."
As for HOW to optimize your vitamin D levels, I firmly believe that appropriate sun exposure is the best way. In fact, I personally have not taken a vitamin D supplement for three or four years, yet my levels are in the 70 ng/ml range. There's a handy smartphone app called DMinder (dminder.info) that will tell you how much UV radiation you're getting and how many IUs of vitamin D you're making based on your local weather conditions (reported from the weather service) and other individual parameters such as your skin tone and age. It will also tell you when to get out of the sun, to protect yourself from sunburn.
If you can't get enough sunshine, then a safe tanning bed would be your next best option. Most tanning equipment use magnetic ballasts to generate light. These magnetic ballasts are well known sources of EMF fields that can contribute to cancer. If you hear a loud buzzing noise while in a tanning bed, it has a magnetic ballast system. I strongly recommend you avoid these types of beds and restrict your use of tanning beds to those that use electronic ballasts.
If your circumstances don't allow you to access the sun or a safe tanning bed, then you really only have one option if you want to raise your vitamin D, and that is to take a vitamin D supplement. GrassrootsHealth has a helpful chart showing the average adult dose required to reach healthy vitamin D levels based upon your measured starting point. Many experts agree that 35 IUs of vitamin D per pound of body weight could be used as an estimate for your ideal dose.
If You Opt for Oral Vitamin D, Remember Vitamin K2
Last but not least, if you do opt for a vitamin D supplement, you also need to take vitamin K2. The biological role of vitamin K2 is to help move calcium into the proper areas in your body, such as your bones and teeth. It also helps remove calcium from areas where it shouldn't be, such as in your arteries and soft tissues.
Vitamin K2 deficiency is actually what produces the consequences similar to vitamin D toxicity, which includes inappropriate calcification that can lead to hardening of your arteries. The reason for this is because when you take vitamin D, your body creates more vitamin K2-dependent proteins that move calcium around in your body. Without vitamin K2, those proteins remain inactivated, so the benefits of those proteins remain unrealized. So remember, if you take supplemental vitamin D, you're creating an increased demand for K2. Together, these two nutrients help strengthen your bones and improve your heart health.