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Vitamin D is not just for snow birds

By Virginia Middleton

As the days get shorter and nights seem darker, lots of people are planning vacations to warmer climates to get some extra sunshine. Many will joke that they need to soak up some sun to recharge their batteries, and top up their vitamin D levels. But a new report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is reminding the public to be aware of the need for calcium and vitamin D to help ensure optimal bone health.

A recent independent review by the IOM of the National Academies of Science has suggested increasing the recommended dietary amount of vitamin D from a previous study released 13 years ago.

Dr. Christopher Kovacs, an endocrinologist in the Faculty of Medicine, was involved with the IOM study.

“For both calcium and vitamin D, there is solid evidence that both are necessary for optimal bone health and this study can play an important supportive role for both physicians and the public.”

For a healthy individual, the suggested intake of calcium for adults up to 50 years old receive 1,000 milligrams per day of calcium and 1,200 mg for older adults; amounts for children are proportionately smaller. The suggested amounts for vitamin D are 600 international units (IU) daily for adults up to age 70 and 800 IU for older adults; children under one year require smaller amounts. For many people, they can achieve their calcium levels through a healthy diet. If a healthy diet isn't providing enough, then a supplement may be needed to reach 600 IU daily.

Dr. Kovacs explained that the calcium requirements haven’t changed substantially, but have slightly decreased in recommended dosage range. This is based on evidence that suggests possible harm can come from higher calcium intakes. Other medical researchers have also suggested that there is evidence of possible harm from taking more than the recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D.

The report has been widely covered in major media sources including the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, CBC, and CNN. While findings have been generally accepted, there is a group of vitamin D researchers who are responding negatively because they propose that higher intakes of vitamin D will provide other health benefits. Some of their claims have included the prevention of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and multiple sclerosis. But Dr. Kovacs advises that there is insufficient evidence showing that treatment with vitamin D prevents these proposed health outcomes.

While this current study has shed some light on the benefits of vitamin D, conflicting opinions continue to exist within the medical community. Dr. Kovacs said there is still a need for trials and research to provide conclusive results that can postulate non-bone health benefits for vitamin D.

So, while it’s fun to say you need to go south and get a healthy glow, sunlight exposure has known risks with respect to skin cancer and there isn’t a known dose of sun that is considered safe. This additional concern about sun exposure should encourage people to speak with their physicians about healthy ways they can meet recommended calcium and vitamin D intake. As Dr. Kovacs put it, “Whether you live in Florida or near the North Pole, a healthy person needs 600 IU of vitamin D a day.”

Finally, Dr. Kovacs urges the need for more studies because while the overall health benefits and hazards of vitamin D are not fully understood, bone health benefits of calcium and vitamin D are compelling. Sadly, opposing opinions within the medical community could leave the public confused, potentially putting people at risk.

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