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