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Vitamin D: Cure-All or Commercial Success?

By HERWriter
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Nowadays, when the internet supplies us with so many fantastic sources of information on everything from our health to the best holiday deals, it’s important to know what’s real and what might just be clever advertising. Though our media sources are faster and cover more stories than ever before, this doesn’t mean their reporting should be taken as gospel. Just like frenzied shoppers, journalists also do their best to find easy-to-wrap-up news stories that are consistent with the popular trends in our public’s eye. Thus, reporting often reflects what citizens want to read rather than the truth.

The recent controversy over vitamin D is a prime example of this fact flip-flopping. (So is the controversy over Wiki-leaks, but we won’t get into that.)

Vitamin D is especially interesting when it comes to nutritional supplementation, as it’s the only vitamin that is also a hormone. In its dual role, vitamin D is essential to the body’s absorption of calcium. Without enough vitamin D, a body is more likely to have lower bone density and other complications associated with low blood levels of calcium.

D is also the only vitamin that does not need to be consumed in food – we can produce it when our skin is exposed to direct sunlight. Thus, unlike with most other nutrients, a person cannot ensure that he or she is getting enough vitamin D simply by eating a balanced diet, (though of course, this helps tremendously!) but should also make efforts to include outdoor activity and gentle exposure to the elements in his or her daily activities. People who have skin with a darker pigment and those who live in regions where sunshine isn’t strong or prevalent (think: upper midwest) are more likely to show a deficiency in vitamin D.

Perhaps it is these curious characteristics of the vitamin that contributed to scientific communities’ and mass media’s recent obsession with its benefits. Perhaps it was simply part of the eternal attempt to locate that panacea of a drug. Whatever the reason, until just a few months ago, scientists and physicians were strongly asserting the benefits of vitamin D and decrying the fact that most Americans have a dangerous deficiency of the vitamin in their diets. News articles sprang up almost daily, reporting that lack of vitamin D was "associated with higher risk of death" (New York Times, 8/19/08) and that low levels might be correlated with "an increased risk for dementia" (New York Times, 2/24/09), among other things. These articles indicated that increasing one’s intake of vitamin D can help insure against a laundry list of ailments, including osteoporosis and bone density issues, cancer, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune diseases, to name a few (Web MD). It was recommended that people increase their intake of vitamin D by 1000 percent in some cases (from 200 IUs to 2000) and that the United States Food and Drug Administration change the official recommended daily intake to encourage larger “doses”.

However, as media attention resulted in more in-depth studies, recent articles are actually refuting claims that vitamin D is such a “miracle” supplement. They report that high levels of vitamin D are unnecessary and could actually be dangerous, that fewer Americans than originally believed are deficient in their vitamin D intake, and that it pays to be cautious in assuming causation, rather than correlation (New York Times, 11/29/10).

This article is not saying that vitamin D is not a crucial part of our diet and general health-style, nor that the online health community and mainstream reporting on research developments are not helpful to the public. I simply wish to advise caution; time has proven that a healthy dose of critical thought is truly the best supplement to your diet and has no risk of negative side effects.
So read carefully!

“Are You Getting Enough Vitamin D?” http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/are-you-getting-enough-vitamin-d. Accessed 12/18/10.

Bakalar, Nicholas. “Aging: Vitamin D Levels Tied to Dementia Risk” Research – New York Times. (February 23, 2009.) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/24/health/research/24aging.html?scp=10&sq=vitamin+d&st=nyt - dementia

Kolata, Gina. “Report Questions Needed for 2 Diet Supplements” Health – New York Times. November 29, 2010.) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/health/30vitamin.html?ref=dietarysupplementsandherbalremedies

Nagourney, Eric. “Nutrition: Vitamin D May Play Larger Role in Health.” Fitness & Nutrition - New York Times. (August 18, 2008.) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/19/health/nutrition/19nutr.html?_r=1&ref=dietarysupplementsandherbalremedies

Add a Comment6 Comments

Hanna, thank you so much for the thought-provoking article. I completely agree with you. I am a BRCA2 carrier who comes from 3 generations of breast cancer survivors. I had a prophylactic double mastectomy and oopherectomy to avoid my own day of diagnosis. So I follow cancer/health news very closely and I am often exhausted both by the constant flow of supernutrient stories and the frequent ping-ponging back and forth that follows - benefits vs. risks and studies questioning studies.

That said, I wrote about this newest supernutrient here: http://www.4women.com/blog/?p=260. Since writing that post, I find daily stories either supporting, questioning, or seemingly taking a polar position on the potential risks/benefits of Vitamin D supplementation. What to believe!!!???? Articles such as your's promoting common sense balance in life, vs. imbalance supplemented with pills are needed.
Thanks for sharing.

Susan Beausang

December 23, 2010 - 8:44am
HERWriter (reply to Susan Beausang)

Thanks for your comment, Susan!! I really appreciate it.

Very best,

December 23, 2010 - 8:21pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Hannah Cutts)

You are welcome. Have a wonderful holiday.

December 24, 2010 - 5:02am

Thank you very much for your comments!

I just want to reiterate that I didn't mean to imply that Vitamin D isn't a crucial part of each person's diet - it is! Instead, I was hoping to point out that over-emphasizing or over-glorifying one single vitamin over all the other essential nutrients a body needs to function can be dangerous. Past studies claiming that Vitamin D is the panacea of Vitamins is still new and unreliable, and it is important for consumers to think critically about what they are reading. Concentrating on balance in diet and lifestyle is far more advantageous to your health than relying on a single supplement - no matter what you read.

Hope that clarifies!

December 23, 2010 - 6:28am
EmpowHER Guest

If one asks the right questions, like here:


it may become easier to understand vitamin D. Without wondering about why the body choses to use vitamin D, you're left with the known fact that it is necessary to mantain bones and you have some not so rigorously established results that it is involved in other processes.

December 21, 2010 - 5:42pm
EmpowHER Guest

I am not sure why you have chosen to believe experts when they claimed in their report that they only consider bone health. Also they did not separate their findings between D2 and D3. Basically the report from the IOM is not a report about the facts but a report to maintain the population with vitamin D levels below peoples in a sunny country. The amount they recommend will not get you there.

December 20, 2010 - 6:36pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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