A New Epidemic—Vitamin D Deficiency

When it comes to national health, there seems to be a new kid on the epidemic block—vitamin D deficiency. Joining the ranks of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, this fledgling plague is easily prevented, but has catastrophic consequences when left unchecked. Vitamin D plays a crucial role in absorbing and synthesizing calcium, maintaining bone density and preventing osteoporosis. And, according to WebMD, “new research suggests it may also help to protect against chronic diseases such as colon, prostate and breast cancer, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and autoimmune diseases." Despite this vitamin's saving graces, many adults have low blood levels of vitamin D. According to the Mayo Clinic, recent studies have found that “vitamin D levels appear lower among Americans today than 15 to 20 years ago.” Researchers attribute this decline to increasing weight, declining milk consumption and increasing use of sun protection. Most recently, an LDS Church-backed study from the Thrasher Research Fund found that most pregnant women mirror the larger population when it comes to vitamin D deficiency, even when they take prenatal vitamins, which means that their fetuses are lacking as well. In addition to all of its other uses, the vitamin is critical for fetal growth, and a lack of it also puts them at risk for a number of chronic diseases as well. Physician Carol Wagner, a professor at Medical University of South Carolina who led the study, found that 85 percent of study participants had insufficient or deficient levels of the vitamin. "When you see something like this that's so pervasive, you have to do something about it," she told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Babies are born with low levels of vitamin D because their only source is the mother," Wagner said. "If she's deficient, her milk will be deficient [and] the baby will be deficient.” The typical level of vitamin D in prenatal vitamins—400 units—has shown little effect on maternal levels. Wagner is now working to determine whether 2,000 units or 4,000 units is better at reducing pregnancy complications and boosting vitamin D levels in infants. While results from this study could lead to new recommendations on how much vitamin D pregnant women should take, and perhaps even the development of new multivitamins to meet the need, what can pregnant women do in the meantime? Because this vitamin is not abundant in usual food choices (it is very rare that people find themselves getting too much cod liver oil), most people get the majority of their vitamin D from sun exposure and multivitamins. Only 15 minutes a day of full-body sun exposure during the summer can generate up to 20,000 units of the vitamin for fair-skinned people, but the use of sunscreen to prevent skin cancer and premature aging blocks many of the UV rays which are necessary to produce the vitamin. Furthermore, WebMD suggests that "the season, time of day, latitude, level of air pollution, skin color and age" all affect the skin's ability to produce the vitamin. Good dietary sources of vitamin D, according to the Mayo Clinic, are fortified foods such as milk, yogurt, margarine and cereals. Naturally occurring vitamin D carriers include catfish, sardines, salmon, tuna and egg yolks. Vitamin D and A are the vitamins most likely to cause toxicity, but the levels necessary to reach toxicity are usually only reached through excess supplement (toxicity levels vary with age and size). As with any supplement, you should check with your physician before starting a regimen.
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