Over the past several months, Vitamin D has been in the news, and it’s seemed like a magic bullet that can fight a range of life-or-death issues, including cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer.
And though the jury’s still out on whether those claims are definitively true, what’s unarguable is the link between low levels of vitamin D and poor bone health.
But to get the maximum benefits from Vitamin D, you’ll need to do more than buy a bottle of it at your drugstore. Neil Binkley, M.D., a geriatrician at the University of Wisconsin, emphasizes the importance of individual analysis by a physician when it comes to figuring out how much Vitamin D is right for you. “It has to be done on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “For example, people are of different ages. One patient could be 180 pounds and another 280 pounds. It doesn’t make sense that they will all take the same amount.”
Because of variations like that, Binkley suggests taking a test to determine what your Vitamin D levels are. Currently, the standard procedure is 25-hydroxy Vitamin D, a simple blood test. According to the National Institutes of Health, a normal result will be anywhere from 30.0 to 74.0 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml).
Who should take the test? Almost everyone over 50, especially if they have broken a bone. It’s been estimated that 90 percent of adults between the ages of 51 and 70 are deficient in vitamin D. Depending on the result, your doctor may say that an over-the-counter level of Vitamin D is right for you or that you’ll need a prescription level of the vitamin. (Unlike many other vitamins, you can’t get all you need from nutrition. Vitamin D is found in very few foods; instead it’s a naturally occurring substance in our bodies. “We make it, we don’t eat it,” Binkley says.)
Experts often suggest regular but limited exposure to sunlight--without sunscreen--as a remedy for Vitamin D deficiency. But Binkley doesn’t believe in making simplified recommendations. “What latitude are you at? What kind of exposure are you getting? It’s not that simple.” Instead, he says it’s better for people to focus on getting their vitamin D through supplements. That’s particularly important for African-Americans, he says, because they have higher levels of melanin (pigmentation) in their skin than Caucasians, and the melanin acts as a sunblock. Studies have shown that as a group, African-Americans have high levels of vitamin D deficiency.
Recent headlines have characterized low levels of vitamin D as linked to a number of serious health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and even certain kinds of cancer. Binkley cautions, though, that these links haven’t been conclusively proven. “You can read things that sound definitive, but they’re not,” he says. (And in fact, there haven’t yet been any large-scale randomized trials to evaluate the many claims being made for Vitamin D.)
What he prefers to focus on, Binkley says, is Vitamin D’s proven ability to “optimize bone health. It’s critical to quality of life.” Serious falls that end in broken bones can affect everything from mobility to mood.”
Vitamin D may still end up being something of a miracle worker in other areas. But Binkley says we’ll have to wait for definitive proof. “In ten years,” he says, “we’ll be smarter.”