Dearth of the big D

by Helen Lobato

Many of us are not getting enough vitamin D. The dearth of this wonder vitamin has transpired due to the consumption of depleted industrialized foods coupled with an overzealous adherence to the anti-cancer slip,slop and slap campaigns of the past twenty-five years. The consequences of this vitamin deficiency are proving to be considerable and of great human and social cost.

Last week, media reports alerted us to the fact that there exists a link between vitamin D and Multiple Sclerosis. MS is a disabling neurological condition affecting 20,000 Australians and growing at a rate of 8% per annum.The disease affects mostly young people with women in their twenties and thirties who are juggling careers and families being affected three times more often than men.

And it also appears that vitamin D has a huge role to play in cancer prevention. Joan Lappe, a professor of medicine has conducted a four year study in which she found that large doses of vitamin D may reduce the risk of cancer. Women who took calcium and a dose of vitamin D almost three times the US Government's recommended daily intake for middle-aged adults saw a 60 per cent lower incidence of all cancers than women not taking the vitamin.

So what is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that dissolves in and can be stored by fat deposits in the body and is commonly found in oysters, mackerel, sardines plus generous amounts of butter, egg yolk, butter and cod liver oil. Vitamin D is also synthesized by sunlight acting on the skin.

Then what is the problem?

Donít we have a plentiful supply of sunshine and loads of fish and dairy products. Yes we do, but once again we have listened to well- meaning, but detrimental health campaigns and neglected our dietary history.

Over the past few decades western diets have tended to ignore the lessons observed from history where traditional diets included lots of saturated fats supplying varying amounts of vitamin D. Primitive peoples instinctively chose vitamin-D-rich foods including the intestines, organ meats, skin and fat from certain land animals, as well as shellfish, oily fish and insects. On the other hand our modern diets have tended towards the processed low-fat diets leading to vitamin D deficiency and other nutritional disorders.

Vitamin D can also be synthesized in the skin during sun exposure, but precise amounts of sun exposure are difficult to pinpoint since they depend on a person's skin type and age, as well as on latitude, season, time of day, and amount of skin exposed. The ultraviolet wavelength that stimulates our bodies to produce vitamin D is UV-B. UV-B initiates beneficial responses, stimulating the production of vitamin D that the body uses in many important processes.Latitude and altitude determine the intensity of UV light. UV-B is stronger at higher altitudes. Latitudes higher than 30į (both north and south) have insufficient UV-B sunlight two to six months of the year, even at midday.

The skin cancer campaigns of the last 25 years have been over effective in that we have been far too vigilant in protecting our skin from the sunís rays. Schoolchildren of today play with their faces and other parts of their bodies shielded from the sun, missing out on the UV-B rays and most adults work longer hours inside than ever before. So depending on sunlight for sufficient vitamin D production can be tricky.

Factors such as geography and skin color plus decades of adhering to messages of sun avoidance and wearing sun blockers combined with reduction in food sources due to changing dietary habits have contributed to escalating vitamin D deficiencies.

Vitamin D is very important for the health and wellbeing of us all. One of its vital roles is the regulation of levels of calcium in the blood. It also plays an important role in regulation of the immune system and may protect against both Type I and Type II diabetes. The latest research that large doses of vitamin D may reduce the risk of cancer is welcome in that the remedy is relatively simple. The role of Vitamin D in preventing cancer can be explained by its ability to inhibit cell growth and proliferation and thus it is likely that it can prevent cells becoming cancerous or slow down the rate of tumor growth or maybe both.

In the case of the autoimmune system disease, multiple sclerosis, it is known that active vitamin D interacts with cells of the immune system and very likely plays an anti-inflammatory role in the body. The incidence of MS is nearly zero in equatorial regions and increases dramatically with latitude where inadequate sun exposure exists for vitamin D synthesis.

As so often happens the cure is simple and inexpensive. Old fashioned cod liver oil contains more vitamin A and more vitamin D per unit weight than any other common food with just a tablespoon a day providing well over the recommended daily allowance for both nutrients.