Vitamin D – A Gene-Regulating Super Nutrient

Thursday, November 06, 2008
By: Byron J. Richards,
Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist

Vitamin D has long been known to assist healthy bones1 by helping stimulate bone cells to make new bone while enhancing the uptake of calcium into bones.  Its role in boosting immunity, hormone regulation, brain health, metabolism, diabetes prevention, cancer prevention, and cardiovascular health are just now becoming clear2.  The sunshine vitamin appears poised to claim its crown.

All of your body’s organs and cells have receptors for vitamin D, meaning that vitamin D communicates all around your body.  Your cells use vitamin D to directly regulate your genes, making it one of the most powerful compounds in human health.  One study with 2,100 female twins showed that having adequate vitamin D extends life by five years3.  This is because vitamin D prevents excessive wear and tear to the telomers that are attached to the ends of your chromosomes and enable cell division; telomeres determine potential cell lifespan.  This is truly a new era of nutritional science.

Vitamin D Basics

Vitamin D34 is produced in your skin when it is exposed to sunlight.  Extra vitamin D from prolonged sun exposure is converted to nonbiologically active lumisterol, which can also be converted back to D3 when sun exposure levels drop.  Prolonged sun exposure results in tanning (extra melanin synthesis), which is a natural sunscreen (like clothing) and reduces the amount of vitamin D3 that is made in the first place.  There is no such thing as getting too much vitamin D3 from the sun. 

Vitamin D must be converted into its biologically active form (1,25(OH)2D) before it goes to work.  Your kidneys are the main organs that do this for your body as a whole, but many cells have the enzymes to directly activate vitamin D.  For example, cells lining your lungs and digestive tract can activate vitamin D to help fight infection.  The vitamin D receptors around your body are capable of binding both the active and inactive forms of vitamin D.  Cells that activate vitamin D can also inactivate it, forming a convenient system of self-regulation based on a variety of needs.

Once vitamin D is active in cells it has one main job: activating genes.  In other words, vitamin D’s basic role in your body is to help regulate its functions at the level of gene transcription.  Because so many different tissues and types of cells use vitamin D, it can be assumed that this is a fundamental need for survival.

Your body places a high value on vitamin D and has made provisions to store it in your liver and the lining of your digestive tract5.  This vitamin D savings account can be called into action when needed, such as during the long winter months.  It is interesting that vitamin D deficiencies in your liver or digestive tract are associated with the poor health6 of both organ systems.

When your skin makes vitamin D the vitamin D turns on antioxidants7 within your skin to deactivate the free radicals coming from the sun’s UV radiation.  This is a natural defense mechanism (a built in sunscreen).  New science shows that only nine percent of the population has vitamin D receptors8 that don’t do a good job of this.  It is ridiculous to make 100 percent of the population think that routine sun exposure is a major health risk when such advice applies mostly to a small group.

How Much Supplemental Vitamin D Do You Need?

It is widely recognized that vitamin D is low in many Americans.  Government levels for vitamin D dietary intake are 400 IU to 600 IU per day and may be lacking based on a significant body of vitamin D science.  Many vitamin D researchers believe that 2,000 IU9 are needed on a daily basis, especially in the winter months in the U.S. 

Vitamin D intake of 2,000 IU has been safely tested in children10 ages 10-17.  In fact, only the dose of 2,000 IU was able to bring the common vitamin D deficiency in children up to normal levels. 

A study of overweight African-American children found that 57 percent who were overweight lacked vitamin D, compared to 40 percent of the control group.  However, one month of vitamin D intake at 400 IU per day failed to bring vitamin D11 levels into normal range, which indicates that current government recommendations are inadequate.


A randomized study of 180 pregnant women found that 800 IU of vitamin D12 per day improved their blood levels.  However, only a few of the women and their babies reached normal levels of vitamin D on this dose.  In another study with 206 pregnant women only 10 percent had adequate vitamin D levels.  Those with the lowest vitamin D had children who experienced tooth enamel abnormalities and cavities13 early in life.

Another study with young healthy men14 found they needed 700-800 IU of vitamin D per day in the winter to maintain optimal bone health.  You can imagine that older people, most woman, or individuals in poor health would need a higher amount.

Even the Mayo Clinic15 is churning out press releases telling everyone to take 800-1,000 IU of vitamin D per day.  They are telling people that Vitamin D can improve muscle strength and help older people not fall, reduce the risk of some cancers, help chronic pain, protect against autoimmune disease, and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.  Wow – even mainstream medicine is on the vitamin D bandwagon.

In my view, part of the issue of how much Vitamin D you should take is based on the symptoms you have that indicate likely deficiency.  Keep in mind that these symptoms may crop up as winter moves along and your vitamin D savings account is depleted.  Thus, I will review some of the key findings of recent vitamin D research.

Immunity

The front line troops16 of your immune system (innate immunity) use vitamin D to help mount an immune response for their foot soldiers.  These immune cells use vitamin D to produce a germ-killing compound called cathelicidin.  Your immune cells then release cathelicidin to kill bacteria.  This is a process that does not work if there is a lack of vitamin D.  Its bacteria killing properties have been known for some time and have even been used to help kill tuberculosis. 

Many chronic skin problems are associated with increased infection.  A small study of patients with atopic dermatitis17  found that taking 4,000 IU of vitamin D per day for 21 days restored their skin’s production of cathelicidin to normal – offering protection from infection.

Another study shows that vitamin D is directly activated by cells in your lungs to help combat infection18.  Researchers showed that this not only boosted the bacteria-killing cathelicidin but also improved the ability of immune troops to identify invaders. 

If you have recurring skin problems or if your lungs are a friendly place for bugs to live (especially during winter) then it is likely you need more vitamin D.

Autoimmune Problems

Vitamin D has a dampening effect on excessive and inappropriate behavior of immune cells; it helps reduce the amount of inflammation produced by immune cells.  A vitamin D deficiency may be an underlying and possibly causative issue for almost any autoimmune problem. A theory can be put forth that vitamin D adequacy is required to prevent your immune system from going into an improper hyperactive and excessively inflammatory state – a problem that is at least a part of all diseases of aging.

Studies show vitamin D’s19 ability to help prevent as well as improve issues such as arthritis, autoimmune type 1 diabetes, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Individuals with any autoimmune disease should have their vitamin D levels tested by their physician; these should be corrected as a first step in seeking to improve any problem.

It is interesting that vitamin D helps both a lacking and hyperactive immune system work well.  A key theme of nutrition is that it works in your body to promote efficiency of healthy function.  In the case of vitamin D it not only boosts underperformance, bit it also quiets down excessive and improper activity.  Obviously, no drug has such intelligence. 

Cancer

One of the main functions of vitamin D is to tell your genes what to do.  Many of these functions relate to cell growth and division.  For example, adequate vitamin D is crucial to the healthy growth of your skin and hair.  In fact, a lack of vitamin D can result in an autoimmune reaction that makes your hair fall out or in disruptions to consistent skin pigmentation. 

Cancer problems imply that cell division has gotten out of control in an inappropriate way.  Just as vitamin D is needed by immune cells so they don’t become hyperactive and inappropriate, so it is that vitamin D may be needed to help regulate cell growth and differentiation to keep it in a healthy condition.

A number of precise cell growth factors are favorably influenced by vitamin D, which is likely to have benefit for many kinds of cancer.  Current vitamin D cancer research has tended to focus on colon, breast, and prostate cancer.

One aspect of the current research shows that vitamin D is a partner in the antioxidant defense system of cells, helping clear them of free radicals and thereby protecting them from DNA damage that can lead to mutation.  Interestingly, vitamin D is smart enough not to protect cancer cells.  That finding, along with earlier work, led this research group20 to claim, “Our findings reflect what we see in those studies and demonstrate that vitamin D not only can be used as a therapy for prostate cancer, but it can also prevent prostate cancer from happening.”

Some of the newer colon cancer21 research finds that vitamin D turns on death signals in colon cancer cells, and works synergistically with calcium to help prevent colon cancer cells from spreading.

A definitive German study has now proven that low levels of vitamin D in premenopausal women22 are associated with an increased risk in breast cancer.  Compared to the women with the highest vitamin D, the increased risk ranged from 45 percent - 68 percent, depending on the amount of deficiency. 

Diabetes and Obesity

Vitamin D levels are low in obese adults.  It is well known that vitamin D helps stimulate the release of insulin from your pancreas.  A lack of vitamin D drastically increases the risk for type 1 diabetes and is likely involved with the insulin and leptin resistance that eventually causes type 2 diabetes.  A lot more work is needed in this area to fully understand these issues, but here is what we know so far: 

The further you live from the equator the higher your risk for getting type 1 diabetes23.  If you live in Finland your risk goes up four hundredfold.  How vitamin D protects the beta cells of your pancreas is not known, but it likely dampens inflammatory immune signals and boosts antioxidant protection – as it has been shown to do in other areas of your body.

Pooled data from existing studies shows that a child24 supplemented with vitamin D is 30 percent less likely to develop type I diabetes even as an adult.  In a very large Finnish study those infants and children who consistently took 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day25 had a 78 percent reduced risk of type 1 diabetes.

Many overweight people26 are low in vitamin D. Correcting vitamin D deficiency has been shown to improve insulin resistance, which gives vitamin D a role in also helping prevent type 2 diabetes (the most common form).

New research shows that vitamin D is metabolically active within your stored fat27, although we don’t know exactly what it is doing.  We know from earlier research that vitamin D helps reduce excess leptin28 from fat.  High leptin lowers another fat hormone called adiponectin, which we know must be at higher levels to prevent insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.  While there is a lot more about this to learn, it appears that adequate vitamin D is helpful for healthy blood sugar and fat metabolism.

If you are struggling with weight or the health of your pancreas it may be another sign that some extra vitamin D is needed.

Heart Health

Researchers at the University of Michigan have nicknamed vitamin D “the heart tranquilizer” because it helps keep your heart29 from working so hard and swelling in size.  Their findings indicate that vitamin D can help prevent heart failure.

Vitamin D has also been shown to improve blood flow30 in your extremities, helping improve what researchers call peripheral artery disease (PAD).  Researchers evaluated 4,839 U.S. adults and found those with the best vitamin D levels had the least amount of PAD.

Brain Health

Animals research has shown that low vitamin D during pregnancy caused brain abnormalities similar to those seen in patients with schizophrenia31.  Because vitamin D is involved with gene transcription in the evolving nervous system, a lack of it is bound to cause some problems.

Low vitamin D is associated with depression32 in older Americans. 

An interesting study compared vitamin D levels in older Americans to those with Parkinson’s33 and Alzheimer’s disease.  Patients with Parkinson’s were 55 percent more likely to be low in vitamin D.

Thus, if your hands are a bit shaky and/or your mood is a bit off then maybe you could use a little more vitamin D.

Summary

Vitamin D does so many things helpful to your health that you absolutely do not want to run short of it.  Government recommendations for dietary intake of vitamin D are too low, especially for the winter months when vitamin D is so important to the function of your immune system.


Referenced Studies:
  1. ^ Vitamin D is Vital to Bone Health  Nat Clin Pract Rheumatol.  Wolff AE, Jones AN, Hansen KE; Medscape.
  2. ^ Vitamin D Deficiency Pandemic  Mol Aspects Med.   Holick MF.
  3. ^ Adequate Vitamin D Extends Lifespan  American Jounal of Clinical Nutrition  Richards JB, Valdes AM, Gardner JP, Paximadas D, Kimura M, Nessa A, Lu X, Surdulescu GL, Swaminathan R, Spector TD, Aviv A.
  4. ^ How Vitamin D Works in Your Body  J Clin Endocrinol Metab.  Bikle D.
  5. ^ Vitamin D is Stored in Multiple Locations Along Your Digestive Tract  Eur J Drug Metab Pharmacokinet.   Stumpf WE.
  6. ^ Vitamin D Lacking In Serious Liver and Digestive Problems  73rd Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology.  
  7. ^ Vitamin D Protects Against UV Damage  J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol.   Dixon KM, Deo SS, Wong G, Slater M, Norman AW, Bishop JE, Posner GH, Ishizuka S, Halliday GM, Reeve VE, Mason RS.
  8. ^ Skin Cancer a Risk for Only 9%  Cancer.   Mocellin S, Nitti D
  9. ^ Vitamin D Intake of 2000 IU May Be Needed    Anthony Norman
  10. ^ Vitamin D at 2000 IU Needed for Children  J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab.  Joyce Maalouf, Mona Nabulsi, Reinhold Vieth, Samantha Kimball, Rola El-Rassi, Ziyad Mahfoud, and Ghada El-Hajj Fuleihan. 
  11. ^ 400 IU of Vitamin D Is Not Enough for Kids  Department of Pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.  Rajakumar K, Fernstrom JD, Holick MF, Janosky JE, Greenspan SL.
  12. ^ 800 IU Vitamin D Is Not Enough for Pregnancy  Clin Endocrinol (Oxf).  Yu CK, Sykes L, Sethi M, Teoh TG, Robinson S.
  13. ^ Mom’s Vitamin D Status Affects Baby’s Dental Health  86th General Session of the International Association for Dental Research.  R. Schroth, et al.
  14. ^ Young Men Need 700-800 IU of Vitamin D in the Winter  J Bone Miner Res.  Viljakainen HT, Väisänen M, Kemi V, Rikkonen T, Kröger H, Laitinen E, Rita H, Lamberg-Allardt C.
  15. ^ Mayo Clinic Likes Vitamin D    Mayo Clinic Press Release
  16. ^ How Vitamin D Works in Your Body  J Clin Endocrinol Metab.  Bikle D.
  17. ^ Vitamin D Helps Skin Immunity  Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology  Richard Gallo, et al.
  18. ^ Vitamin D Helps Lung Immunity  Journal of Immunology   Sif Hansdottir, et al.
  19. ^ How Vitamin D Works in Your Body  J Clin Endocrinol Metab.  Bikle D.
  20. ^ Vitamin D and Prostate Cancer  International Journal of Cancer  Yi-Fen Lee, et al.
  21. ^ Vitamin D and Calcium in the War on Colon Cancer  American Association for Cancer Research meeting in San Diego.  
  22. ^ Vitamin D and Breast Cancer Risk  Int J Cancer.   Abbas S, Chang-Claude J, Linseisen J.
  23. ^ Vitamin D and Type I Diabetes  Diabetologia  Cedric F. Garland, et al.
  24. ^ Vitamin D Cuts Risk for Type I Diabetes  BMJ  
  25. ^ Vitamin D Reduces Type I Diabetes by 78%  Lancet.  Hyppönen E, Läärä E, Reunanen A, Järvelin MR, Virtanen SM.
  26. ^ Insulin Resistance and Vitamin D  Curr Diab Rep.   Holick MF.
  27. ^ Vitamin D is Active in Stored Fat  J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol.   Li J, Byrne ME, Chang E, Jiang Y, Donkin SS, Buhman KK, Burgess JR, Teegarden D.
  28. ^ Vitamin D Reduces Leptin from Fat   J Endocrinol.   Menendez C, Lage M, Peino R, Baldelli R, Concheiro P, Diéguez C, Casanueva FF.
  29. ^ Vitamin D Protects Your Heart  Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology  Robert Simpson, Peter Mancuso, Ayesha Rahman, Stephen D. Hershey, Loredana Dandu, and Karl A. Nibbelink..
  30. ^ Vitamin D Helps Your Circulation  American Heart Association’s Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology Annual Conference 2008.  Michal Melamed, et al.
  31. ^ Schizophrenia and Prenatal Vitamin D Status    
  32. ^ Vitamin D and Depression  Arch Gen Psychiatry.  Witte J. G. Hoogendijk, et al.
  33. ^ Vitamin D and Parkinson Disease  Arch Neurol.  Evatt ML, Delong MR, Khazai N, Rosen A, Triche S, Tangpricha V.

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