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15 Health Benefits of Vitamin D

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By Alina Petre

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is essential for optimal health.

Only a handful of foods contain significant amounts of this vitamin. These include fatty fish, organ meats, certain mushrooms and fortified foods.

However, unlike other vitamins that you can only get through your diet, vitamin D can also be made by your body when your skin is exposed to the sun.

For this reason, vitamin D is technically considered a hormone.

The limited availability of vitamin D in the human diet, combined with most people's insufficient sun exposure, may explain why up to 41.6 percent of the U.S. population has deficient blood levels (1).

Interestingly, having adequate blood levels of this vitamin can provide many important health benefits.

This article lists 15 science-based benefits linked to vitamin D.

1. Improves Bone Health

Vitamin D plays an important role in the health of your bones.

That's because it increases the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from your diet—two nutrients important for bone health.

Studies show that individuals with low blood levels tend to suffer from more bone loss (2).

In addition, research shows that individuals taking vitamin D supplements may benefit from a 23–33 percent lower risk of bone fractures (3, 4).

Moreover, recent studies report that taking vitamin D supplements may help improve fracture healing, especially in people with low levels. However, more studies are needed to support these results (5).

Most experts recommend that individuals with blood values under 12 ng/ml (25 nmol/l) should consider taking a vitamin D supplement that provides at least 20–25 mcg (800–1,000 IU) each day (2).

However, some insist that this recommendation is too low and propose that people take higher dosages in order to maintain blood vitamin D levels above 30 ng/ml (75 nmol/l) (6, 7, 8, 9).

In any case, all experts agree that elderly individuals, who have an elevated risk of falls and fractures, should supplement at the higher end of the recommendation (2).

Bottom Line: Vitamin D helps increase the absorption of minerals that are important for bone health. Higher levels may also reduce the risk of fractures, limit bone loss and improve recovery from fractures.

2. Reduces Diabetes Risk

Diabetes is a disorder in which your body cannot process carbs normally. Several types of diabetes exist, but type 1 and type 2 diabetes are the most common.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease generally diagnosed during childhood or adolescence, whereas type 2 diabetes usually occurs later in life and is related to lifestyle.

Interestingly, vitamin D may help reduce the risk of both types of diabetes.

Type 1 Diabetes in Children

Type 1 diabetes is a genetic autoimmune disease that destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas.

For this reason, type 1 diabetics must inject insulin several times per day to ensure their blood sugar stays at a healthy level (10).

Although type 1 diabetes has a large genetic component, certain environmental factors—perhaps including low vitamin D intake—may act together to promote the disease.

For instance, studies show that infants and toddlers who take vitamin D supplements may have a 29–88 percent lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes than infants given no supplements (11, 12).

The recommended daily allowance is 10 mcg (400 IU) vitamin D for infants 0–12 months and 15 mcg (600 IU) for most children and adults (13).

However, many argue that these recommendations are too low, with one study observing that only daily doses of 50 mcg (2,000 IU) and above successfully reduced the risk of developing type 1 diabetes (14).

That said, few studies have so far investigated the link between vitamin D and type 1 diabetes. More research is needed before strong conclusions can be made.

Type 2 Diabetes in Children, Teenagers and Adults

Type 2 diabetes is a disease that develops over time. It can happen if your pancreas stops producing enough insulin or if your body develops a resistance to insulin—or both (15).

Interestingly, vitamin D levels may play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes (16, 17, 18, 19).

Experts believe that vitamin D may protect against type 2 diabetes by reducing insulin resistance, increasing insulin sensitivity and enhancing the function of the cells responsible for producing insulin (17, 20, 21).

In fact, two recent reviews report that people with low blood vitamin D levels may have up to a 55 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes (22, 23).

What's more, adults who consumed at least 12.5 mcg (500 IU) of vitamin D per day appeared to benefit from a 13 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who regularly consumed less than 5 mcg (200 IU) per day (23).

Similar results were also reported in vitamin-D-deficient children and teenagers with insulin resistance (24).

In another study, type 2 diabetics given 1,250 mcg (50,000 IU) vitamin D per week had a 5–21 percent decrease in fasting blood sugar levels and insulin resistance over the two-month study period, compared to controls (25).

It's important to mention that not all reviews agree on the protective effects of taking vitamin D supplements (26, 27, 28).

Although it is possible that not all type 2 diabetics benefit from taking vitamin D supplements, it seems particularly beneficial to those with poor blood sugar control (26).

Bottom Line: Adequate vitamin D levels may help reduce the risk of developing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. In certain cases, vitamin D supplements may also help improve blood sugar control in type 2 diabetics.

3. Could Improve Heart Health

Vitamin D may help improve the health of your heart and reduce the likelihood of heart attacks.

In one study, men with blood levels below 15 ng/ml (37 nmol/l) were twice as likely to get a heart attack as those with levels of 30 ng/ml (75 nmol/l) or higher (29).

In another study, the likelihood of developing heart disease was 153 percent higher for people with blood vitamin D levels below 15 ng/ml (37 nmol/l) (30).

The highest risk was seen in individuals with low vitamin D levels who also had high blood pressure (30).

That said, although low blood vitamin D levels are often linked to an increased risk of heart disease, many studies fail to find a decreased risk from taking vitamin D supplements (31, 32, 33, 34).

Experts speculate that other factors linked to a good vitamin D status may be at play, such as time spent outdoors or a preference for vitamin-D-fortified beverages instead of soft drinks (35).

Thus, although taking vitamin D supplements may be beneficial for other reasons, increasing your levels through lifestyle choices still seems to be the best strategy against heart disease.

Bottom Line: Individuals with a good vitamin D status have a lower risk of developing heart disease. However, taking supplements doesn't seem to have an effect.

4. May Lower Your Risk of Certain Cancers

Maintaining adequate vitamin D levels may have some benefits for preventing cancer.

In fact, various studies suggest that individuals with higher levels have a lower risk of certain types of cancer (36, 37).

Two recent reviews report that those with adequate levels may have up to a 25 percent lower risk of developing bladder cancer. Higher vitamin D levels may also reduce the risk of dying from the disease (38, 39).

Similarly, several other studies show that maintaining higher blood vitamin D levels may reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer (40, 41, 42, 43).

In addition, some studies report that vitamin D may play a role in slowing down the progression of cancer. That said, it remains unclear whether taking vitamin D supplements provides any anti-cancer benefits (44).

In fact, several studies failed to find protective effects against cancer after participants took vitamin D supplements, despite having increased blood levels (45, 46, 47, 48, 49).

In sum, more studies are needed to determine cause and effect, as well as the true value of taking vitamin D supplements as an anti-cancer strategy.

Until then, it may be wise to focus on maintaining adequate vitamin D levels through lifestyle choices that are known to reduce the risk of cancer. For instance, through a healthy diet and regular physical activity—preferably outdoors.

Bottom Line: Vitamin D may play a role in cancer prevention. However, more studies are needed to determine its exact role.

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