Vitamin D is listed as one of the essential nutrients.
Fortunately, your body produces its own vitamin D when you are exposed to sunlight.
It is also found in foods like fortified milk, orange juice, eggs, fatty fish like salmon, and some mushrooms.
There are many benefits vitamin D provides to our bodies. You are probably aware of its primary benefit, which is in preventing osteoporosis and other bone diseases.
However, scientists are beginning to learn more about how vitamin D may be responsible for mitigating some symptoms of chronic diseases.
Vitamin D is synthesised as a hormone, acting as a messenger to regulate body processes that may have an impact on a range of conditions, which we will discuss in further detail later.
Bear in mind that most of the findings on vitamin D are mainly observational (versus a properly-controlled randomised trial), but it is good to know what vitamin D may do for our health.
Seniors who have a tendency to experience broken bones and fractures are those with osteoporosis.
Having this condition means that old bone is being removed faster than new bone is being made.
Osteoporosis does not display many symptoms in the early stages, but in the later stages, common symptoms include bone fracture, stooped posture and back pain.
Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption. Without adequate amounts of calcitriol, vitamin D’s active form, the body is unable to absorb enough calcium and phosphate, both of which are essential for maintaining strong bones.
Other bone diseases to be aware of are rickets, which afflicts child-ren, and osteomalacia, which involves the softening of bones due to vitamin D deficiency.
Late symptoms include dull pain in the legs, hips, pelvis, ribs and back.
Heart disease and stroke
Adequate vitamin D intake has been shown to help reduce heart failure, stroke and heart disease.
This was based on a peer review of 19 studies of randomised controlled clinical trials that observed the relationship between vitamin D, bone growth and strength.
In some of the studies, participants were older (over age 70) and mostly women, while other studies included participants with end-stage kidney failure.
Although the studies confirm a robust link between vitamin D and several cardiovascular (heart) disorders, there is still a need for more objective research to determine the real effect that vitamin D may have on heart health and stroke risk.
Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
Observational studies in cell models indicate that vitamin D may increase insulin sensitivity, boost pancreatic beta cell function and lessen inflammation – all of which help to manage type 2 diabetes.
But these studies are observational and do not involve large groups of participants, hence many unanswered questions remain.
There is even less data on whether vitamin D has any benefit in type 1 diabetes.
The medical community continues to observe the potential effect that vitamin D may have on autoimmune disorders.
This is primarily due to the nutrient’s role in regulating the immune system.
Research has been conducted on vitamin D and autoimmune conditions like thyroid disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease.
But just like much of the research on vitamin D, studies on autoimmune conditions and the link to vitamin D are limited to observational models, so more research is needed.
One review of 25 randomised controlled trials that involved about 11,300 people, suggests that patients who were deficient in vitamin D saw a 12% lowered risk for colds and the flu after taking a vitamin D supplement.
But this doesn’t mean that vitamin D supplements are guaranteed to fight off the flu.
In any case, if you are prone to respiratory infections, try increasing your level of vitamin D naturally through sunlight exposure and see if it makes a difference.
Researchers are paying close attention to the potential role of vitamin D in preventing certain types of cancer.
A review of 63 observational studies that analysed the potential connection between vitamin D and ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer and colon cancer, found promising results.
Other observational research also suggests that vitamin D may help prevent colorectal cancer, although the findings are inconclusive.
These studies indicated that vitamin D may well be an efficient and low risk way to help reduce cancer risk.
Cognitive decline and dementia
Because there are vitamin D receptors in our brain tissue, this suggests that the vitamin may play a role in cognitive function, and possibly, in lowering the risk for dementia.
Research seems to support this idea, with one study suggesting that vitamin D may help to cleanse the brain of amyloid plaque, the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
Despite findings being promising, it’s too soon to determine how vitamin D may affect cognitive decline and dementia risk because studies are only observational so far.
Still under study
Scientists are still studying how vitamin D really affects our bodies and what responsibility it plays in the treatment and prevention of chronic conditions.
What we can conclude is that vitamin D is clearly beneficial, but is far from a cure-all.
It is not necessary to start consuming vitamin D supplements, even though it is an essential nutrient that can help strengthen bones and keep them strong, especially in old age.
As for its impact on other diseases, there needs to be further investigation by the medical community before we can make informed decisions about supplementing or upping dietary intake of this vitamin.
If you are concerned about being vitamin D deficient, consult your doctor for a blood test to check if you have enough in your body, and if not, seek further advice on how to improve your vitamin D levels.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and a functional medicine practitioner. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.