Vitamin D: Your Prevention Ally
Importance of Getting Enough Vitamin D During Menopause
If you are a woman in your 30s, 40s or 50s, it’s time to think about vitamin D. This little wonder of a vitamin plays a central role in many body processes and is on the A-list for menopausal women. Studies have linked it to preventing heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer and weight gain. If that seems like a lot of prevention in one little vitamin, it is.
The problem, though, is that as many as half of adults are deficient in vitamin D and are therefore not receiving the benefits.
You may think of vitamin D as you do other vitamins such as vitamin C or the B vitamins. Yet vitamin D is unique in that it functions more like a hormone than a vitamin. And as we know from deficiencies in other hormones such as insulin and thyroid hormone, that a hormonal deficiency can cause of multitude of seemingly unrelated problems.
Consider Vitamin D To Prevent These Conditions
It’s important to be aware of your intake of vitamin D as you approach menopause, because research is discovering its role in the prevention of many diseases and conditions that are more common as you age. You may be aware of vitamin D as a helper for absorbing calcium and building bones, but it is involved in many other processes that protect you from disease and health problems.
Here are a few of the conditions that vitamin D can help treat or prevent:
Vitamin D and Osteoporosis
Since vitamin D is critical for your body to be able to use calcium and build bone properly, women who are over 40 or who have risk factors for osteoporosis should be sure to get adequate amounts of vitamin D. The combination of calcium and vitamin D are a frontline prevention and treatment for maintaining bone strength.
Cancer and Vitamin D
There have been over a thousand studies showing an association between vitamin D and the prevention of nearly 30 types of cancer, especially colon, prostate and chest cancers. Of these, perhaps the strongest support for an adequate vitamin D level comes from the association of vitamin D with not only reducing the risk of colon cancer, but reducing malignant growth in cancers already present.
The irony is that in trying to prevent non-melanoma skin cancers—most of which have nearly a 100 percent survival rate—we have all become excellent users of sun block. While sunblock does help reduce skin cancer risk (at least the risk of non-melanoma skin cancers which are the type of skin cancers with almost a 100 percent survival rate), it also blocks out that helpful vitamin D. Many of the leading cancer organizations are re-thinking their messages about sunscreen, and stating that spending a few minutes in the sun before applying sunscreen may be a very good idea.
To state this thought a little more clearly, we are now re-thinking our recommendations about applying early and liberal sunscreen in order to reduce the risk of cancers which are highly curable in exchange for an increase in the risk of cancers with lower survival rates.
In fact, the risk of melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, is increased in those who have vitamin D deficiency (related to a reduced exposure to sunlight reducing the absorption of vitamin D.)
Not only may vitamin D deficiency lead to an increased risk of cancer, but we are learning that some of the treatments for cancer may not work as well in the setting of vitamin D deficiency, for example, the medication rituximab used for blood related cancers which has made such as difference is less effective in those with low vitamin D levels.
Depression and Vitamin D
Vitamin D has been shown to have a positive effect on low mood and cognitive performance.
Since mood symptoms are common in the menopause years, anything that minimizes your mood troubles is worth your attention. If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and notice your mood being low during the winter season, you may want to boost your vitamin D intake during those darker months.
Diabetes and Vitamin D
Adequate levels of vitamin D seem to have a strong association with your body’s ability to use insulin. Many studies have been done which have found that a low level of vitamin D results in a decrease in the release of insulin in the body, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. In other words, not only does vitamin D make your body’s use of insulin more effective, but it seems to prevent or minimize both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Several studies are currently in progress looking at the possible causal relationship between low vitamin D levels and diabetes.
Cardiovascular Disease and Vitamin D
When estrogen starts to decline, women begin to have the same risks for heart disease as men. Vitamin D plays a role in the prevention of heart disease, but the research is mixed on its value. While vitamin D deficiency does seem to be associated with cardiovascular disease, it’s not clear why this is so. Some studies have failed to connect supplementing with vitamin D to the improvement of cardiovascular risks. Other studies have suggested that calcium actually raises the risk of heart disease, but whether vitamin D would affect that risk is not clear.
If you are concerned about heart disease, talk to your doctor about what the latest research it telling us with regard to vitamin D and cardiovascular disease.
Hypertension (High Blood Pressure) and Vitamin D
Being vitamin D deficient may take a toll on your heart and blood vessels. Since high blood pressure is a symptom that your cardiovascular system is at risk, anything that lowers that risk may be protective for your heart. Studies have shown that supplementing with vitamin D and calcium can lower blood pressure readings for people with hypertension. Yet keep in mind that everyone is different. Some people should not take calcium supplements, for example, those who have a history of kidney stones should talk to their doctor before taking any of these preparations.
Obesity and Vitamin D
For some reason, women who are overweight tend to have lower levels of vitamin D. It’s not known whether the low levels contribute to obesity or whether obesity lowers the levels, but the association exists. Since research links calcium and vitamin D supplements with preventing weight gain for women, this is an excellent excuse to pay attention to your intake of both vitamin D and calcium as you get into the menopausal years. Anything that makes it easier to keep the weight off pays dividends in your overall health.
Other Health Conditions and Vitamin D
Vitamin D has been studied for its role in treating and preventing other conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, muscle weakness, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, celiac disease, other autoimmune diseases, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, and asthma and allergies. We are just beginning to understand how widespread its actions are and how integral it is in healthy body functioning.
Vitamin D Testing
After reading this information, you’re probably wondering what your vitamin D level happens to be. Considering that the majority of the population is deficient, this is a good question to be asking. Thankfully, you can easily learn what your level of vitamin D is with a simple blood test done by your doctor.
How to Increase or Maintain Your Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D can be obtained through your diet, exposure to sunlight, or through a supplement:
Dietary vitamin D – Vitamin D is one vitamin that can be difficult to obtain in a healthy diet. Nutrition guidelines recommend a daily intake of 200 to 800 international units (IUs) depending on your age. In contrast, studies on cancer prevention recommend a daily intake of 1000 to 2000 IU’s for maximal prevention. We hear about milk as a good source, yet at 100 IU per eight ounce glass, this could translate to 20 glasses of milk daily for adequate prevention, an amount of milk unlikely to be healthy for many reasons. Fatty fish may also grant you some vitamin D. In other words, it’s hard for the average person to get enough vitamin D in a healthy diet unlike nearly all other vitamins. (Check out these foods which contain vitamin D.)
Sunlight as a source of vitamin D – Sunlight is an excellent source of vitamin D, but is dependent on your latitude, as well as your use of sunscreen. A 2016 study in Canada found that the angle of the sun during much of the year is too low to absorb adequate vitamin D, even if you took the chance to go outside in a short sleeve shirt in January; something unlikely to be healthy in Canada. On the other hand, spending 15 minutes outside in shirtsleeves on a pleasant day could result in your body producing 5000 IU of vitamin D or more. As noted earlier, we may be trading a lower risk of skin cancer (and in that, the least deadly type of skin cancers) for a higher risk of more deadly cancers such as lung cancer and colon cancer by our conscientious use of sunscreen.
Though we have been listening to sunscreen commercials every way we turn, we are likely on the edge of change. A 2016 review in the journal Dermatoendocrinology states that insufficient sun exposure is an emerging health problem (due to lack of vitamin D as well as other reasons) and that the message of sun avoidance has to be changed to one of non-burning sun exposure sufficient to absorb an adequate amount of vitamin D.
Vitamin D supplements – Many people choose to take a vitamin D supplement, but talk to your doctor first. She may recommend that you get a vitamin D level before starting a supplement. If your doctor believes you could benefit from a supplement, talk to her about the best dose to take. Since the vitamin is fat soluble, it is best absorbed when taken with a meal in which at least some fat is present. The type of vitamin D supplement you use can be important. Many physicians recommend using vitamin D3, but talk to your doctor.
Can You Get Too Much Vitamin D?
If you are healthy and your kidneys are functioning well, it is difficult to get too much vitamin D through dietary sources and sun exposure. You may get too much vitamin D, however, if you choose to take a supplement, especially a very high dose supplement. One of the side effects that may occur with too much vitamin D is painful kidney stones. Yet again, if you ask your doctor to check your vitamin D level and make a recommendation of a supplement dose (vitamin D3) if needed, it’s usually possible to avoid this potential risk.
Bottom Line on Vitamin D as You Enter Midlife
As you get into your midlife, prevention becomes your best defense against age-related health conditions. Vitamin D is a central player in helping you stay strong, healthy and positive.