Everything You Need to Know About Vitamin D and Cancer Prevention
When it comes to health, we should take a hint from the Japanese. It seems like everything they do health-wise is working. Studies indicate that these Asians have the highest longevity rate among all the world’s population. They eat and live healthy depending mostly on what nature has to offer. After all, these are free.
One such free resource is sunshine and this will never run out. Research shows that the Japanese have lower rates of diseases, especially cancer because they have high levels of the “sunshine vitamin” in their systems. The same study has concluded that vitamin D can, indeed, protect us against cancer aside from its other benefits which include maintaining calcium levels in our bones and helping boost the proper functioning of the immune system, the nervous system, and the muscular system.
We have been taught since the grade years that sunlight is our main source of vitamin D, which we referred to earlier as the “sunshine vitamin.” Rich sources of vitamin D are fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and tuna. Dairy products are also good sources. In case the RDA isn’t met, we can always resort to supplements and these are readily available. Low levels of vitamin D in your body can put you at risk of contracting cancer.
What is vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a group of pro-hormones which are fat-soluble and are responsible for increasing intestinal absorption of calcium, phosphate, and magnesium. This means that this nutrient helps a person’s body utilize phosphorus and calcium to make stronger teeth and bones. Our skin’s exposure to sunlight can help generate vitamin D although we can also get it from the certain foods in our diets and through supplements. A deficiency in the nutrient can cause the weakening of bones which can lead to a condition known as rickets which occurs in children or osteomalacia in grown-ups. There are two kinds of vitamin D which are essential in the function of certain processes in the human body:
- Vitamin D2 also known as ergocalciferol is naturally made by plants.
- Vitamin D3 also known as cholecalciferol is naturally produced by your body when the skin gets exposed to UV rays in sunlight.
Both these forms of vitamin D get converted to 25-hydroxyvitamin D in a person’s liver. This compound is then carried by the person’s blood to his kidneys where it’s further converted to calcitriol or 1.25 dihydroxy vitamin D. This is the form of vitamin D which is considered as active and that the body can use. Measuring the amount of calcitriol will give you the vitamin D level in your body. There are several sources of vitamin D:
- Most of us get through exposure to sunlight.
- Dietary sources of the vitamin are found in fatty fish, eggs, and fish oils.
- We can also get it from fortified foods like milk, breakfast cereals, and juices.
- Finally, a convenient way to acquire the RDA of vitamin D is through supplements.
Some of us may assume that taking excessive amounts of vitamin D can give us more benefits. This, of course, is a falsity because too much of the nutrient can have toxic effects on the body. Just imagine if you have too much vitamin D. This will definitely increase the calcium levels which will lead to a disorder called calcinosis where calcium salts will start accumulating in the body’s soft tissues like the heart, lungs, and kidneys. Such excess can also lead to hypercalcemia where there will be high levels of calcium in the blood. This is especially true if someone takes too much vitamin D supplements. High intakes of dietary foods containing vitamin D will not cause much of a problem but excessive intake of vitamin D supplements could be toxic. Even excessive exposures to sunlight will not cause vitamin D problems but we should also be wary that too much sun is not a recommendation because this can increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
A Short History Of Vitamin D
The concept of vitamin D started in the year 1919 by Sir Edward Mallory, who was working with animals during winter. He did notice that his animals were developing bone problems when they were kept indoors. It was his conclusion that there must be a vitamin deficiency that was causing the problem and that administering cod liver oil to the animals seem to be a solution. Sir Mallory referred to this still unidentified vitamin as factor X. As we have mentioned earlier, fatty fish oils are rich in vitamin D and, therefore, is a preventative agent.
The chemical composition of this factor X was then identified by Professor A. Windaus in the 1930s. Hence, we now have vitamin D. Bone problems have been plaguing people for ages and the cause has been traced to vitamin D deficiency. The most common disorder caused by the deficiency is rickets which occurs in children.
A closer study of the substance will inform us that vitamin D is technically not a vitamin but more of a steroid hormone. These are substances produced by the endocrine glands then transported through the circulatory system to different organs of the body where they will be used to regulate behavior and physiology. Vitamin D is a crucial part of a person’s endocrine system because it’s involved in several bodily functions such as:
- Controlling the differentiation and growth of cells.
- Synthesizing of important enzymes.
- Controlling a number of adrenal hormones.
- It also seems to have some important DNA functions. In fact, it may even play a significant role in DNA repair.
- Studies have shown that vitamin D also has an important effect on the sites of nuclear receptors and the receptor sites in cell membranes.
Vitamin D is composed of several chemicals which are fat-soluble and are called calciferols. Vitamin D2 or ergocalciferol gets produced when the ergosterol in a yeast extract is exposed to sunlight’s ultraviolet components. It’s not a substance that is found naturally in the blood of humans. Vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol, on the other hand, is produced when 7-dehydrocholesterol is exposed to the same ultraviolet components of sunlight. If the conversion should not take place, the 7-dehydrocholesterol is simply converted into cholesterol and later into some other steroid hormone. The main source of our vitamin D is through sunlight. Therefore:
- Those who work night shifts in factories may find themselves deficient of the vitamin.
- Those who have black skin or are heavily tanned may have difficulties producing vitamin D because of sunlight’s effect on their skin.
- Conversely, those with fair-colored skin can easily pick up UV light in their natural environments. Presently, however, you would find people with this type of skin avoiding sunlight which could make them deficient in vitamin D.
Dietary sources of vitamin D are fish liver oils and a little in dairy products. The Omega-3 fish oil supplements don’t really have that much of the nutrient. The much-taunted cod liver oil, unfortunately, is not a good source. Ditto with halibut liver oil. To acquire a beneficial dose of vitamin D from these fish liver oils, you will need to consume a considerable amount. If you do this, you will simultaneously get a bigger dose of vitamin A as well, another important nutrient which might disrupt the beneficial effects of vitamin D on the density of bones. It’s like a lose-lose situation.
People should be aware that taking or making enough vitamin D can help reduce the risk of contracting cancer by as much as 33%. Aside from this, an adequate supply of the vitamin can also help boost the body’s immune system and correct cancer cells. It can also fight inflammations, prevent diabetes, dementia, osteoporosis, and much more.
Cancer can be prevented if there are enough vitamin D levels present in the blood. Such levels can even be used several times in predicting breast cancer. It has also been proven that people who are deficient in vitamin D have lesser chances of surviving cancer because the nutrient can correct cancer cells. This means that vitamin D can do almost everything in the cancer cells and this can include the following:
- Switch gene activities on and off in the cancer cell.
- Reduce cancer cell division to prevent it from spreading.
- Calm down the cancer cells so they would settle down instead of spreading.
Such actions make us think that vitamin D can restore a cancer cell to a normal and healthier state. Aside from its role in cancer, vitamin D also has an important role in the body’s metabolic processes, nuclear regulation in aging, slowing down and even reversing prostate cancer. Some studies have indicated that regular sunlight exposure can reduce the risk of cancers and that most of the cancer victims are usually deficient in vitamin D when diagnosed.
What Evidence Is There About Vitamin D and Cancer Prevention?
Research conducted based on the distribution and determination of health and disease conditions, specifically cancer, indicated that the incidence, as well as the death rates for some cancers, were significantly lower with those who live in the southern latitudes where there are higher levels of exposure to sunlight than those living in northern latitudes. Because of the sunlight factor, experts hypothesized that there is an association between the variation in the levels of vitamin D and the disease. But this is still in the hypothesis stage. More studies are needed to determine if high levels of vitamin D can lower the incidence or even the death rates of cancer.
Many experiments have proven that there is a link between vitamin D deficiency and the risk of cancer. Studies have shown evidence that vitamin D can slow down cancer development by enhancing cellular differentiation, reducing the growth of cancer cells, stimulating apoptosis or cell death, and reducing the formation of tumor blood vessels.
Some studies have also been conducted to find out if people who take higher dosages of vitamin D or have higher levels of the vitamin in their blood have a lower risk of developing certain types of cancers. Unfortunately, the results of these studies have revealed are inconsistent. For instance, when doing dietary studies on vitamin D, do we include the vitamin D we can get by exposure to sunlight or do we only consider the measure of vitamin D levels in the blood at one point in time? If these aren’t considered in the study, then the result is not truly reflective of the individual’s status of vitamin D. Another case in point is that people who take larger dosages of vitamin D or have high levels of the vitamin in their blood will not necessarily mean they have no risk in developing cancer because they may have some other healthy behaviors. It may be one of these healthy behaviors that could influence cancer, instead of the intake of vitamin D.
There have been many tests conducted regarding vitamin D intake, most of which were done to assess the health of the bones or some other outcomes but not for cancer. Still, some of these tests yielded results related to cancer incidences and mortality. Because these tests were made without specifically taking cancer as its main purpose, additional tests will be needed to confirm the results.
Myths and Facts About Vitamin D and Cancer Prevention
It was just a matter of time that men would notice a pattern in relation to the incidences of cancer depending on what area in the planet you live in. Those in sunnier places, for instance, have lower cancer rates and less mortality from the dreaded disease. Conversely, those who live in regions where there is less sun had higher incidents. So it seems that vitamin D is the main issue here. What makes such difference will depend upon the levels of vitamin D in the body. Since this is the sunshine vitamin, it’s made in the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight.
To explain the difference, research has been conducted to study the effects of vitamin D. These studies are still on-going and there are yet no conclusive results if vitamin D has a role in preventing the occurrence of cancer or if it has a role in the disease’s treatment. The research is promising as the studies continue. Take a look at these common myths and the actual facts about the relationship of vitamin D and cancer:
Myth:Vitamin D may prevent all types of cancers from occurring.
There’s yet sufficient evidence to prove this. A study conducted on healthy women who took calcium and vitamin D3 supplements didn’t lower their risk of developing cancer. Moreover, another study where scientists re-evaluated the results of a number of experiments on vitamin D showed that the nutrient doesn’t seem to reduce the chances for several types of cancer.
Fact: Vitamin D has some potential for preventing colorectal cancer.
Although the results of the studies conducted on the effects of vitamin D in preventing colorectal cancer are still inconsistent, there are some which showed that the presence of high vitamin D levels is associated with lower chances of acquiring the disease. There is a need for more clinical trials to prove this point which can include how the nutrient can supplement the treatment of colorectal cancer.
Myth:Women must take vitamin D in order to lower the risk of contracting breast cancer.
This vitamin can reduce the chances of getting breast cancer but will not prevent breast cancer completely. Women who have low levels of vitamin D in their systems may benefit by taking it compared to those who will not.
There are some findings, however, which have associated lower levels of vitamin D with a high risk of breast cancer:
- Women who are in the early stages of breast cancer and were found to have low levels of vitamin D have a higher likelihood of having the disease recur than those with adequate levels.
- Women who had high levels of vitamin D have a higher chance of not contracting breast cancer than those who are deficient.
- Even experiments on laboratory rats showed that deficiency in vitamin D helped with the growth of the cancer cells.
Fact: A lot of people are deficient in vitamin D and might need supplements.
There is truly a deficiency of vitamin D all over the world and one good way of solving this is through supplements. Studies have pegged the deficiency to about half of the populace. Vitamin D plays a very important role in many processes that go on in the human body and this includes the prevention of certain types of cancer. If a deficiency occurs, supplements should take over.
Just to make sure you is on the right track, consult with the doctor if there is a need for the supplement. The effects of some other medications could be disrupted when adding the supplement. A blood test may also be required to find out how much vitamin D you have in your system. This test will determine the dosage of vitamin D the person will need.
Cancer is a dreadful disease and nobody would certainly want it. Vitamin D may have its benefits against the disease but you still need to inform your doctor if you plan to add it to your regimen. The findings on vitamin D may be promising in some forms of cancer, but people still need to find out other ways to reduce their risk of acquiring cancer. Cancer screening, which doctors may recommend, is good because it can raise your risk of cancer.
How Does One Acquire More Vitamin D?
One of the main functions of vitamin D is to help the body with calcium absorption since calcium is an essential element for superior bone health. Aside from this, the nutrient is also important in the proper functioning of various systems in the body. Vitamin D is produced when the inactive form of this nutrient gets activated in the skin upon exposure to sunlight. This is our main source. You may find small amounts of the vitamin in fortified milk or in other types of foods like eggs and fatty fish. The production of vitamin D in the body may be hindered because of our spending more time out of direct sunlight or putting on sunscreen to avoid sunburn.
A lot of research has been made on links of vitamin D and cancer. In women, a deficiency in the nutrient can produce higher risks of breast cancer. Some studies, although still ongoing, have shown that vitamin D may play a significant role in the control of normal growth of the breast cells and may also be capable of stopping these cells from growing.
There are two dependable ways you can boost his vitamin D levels – get more exposure to sunlight and taking vitamin D supplements. You can also resort to dietary foods but their vitamin D content is very minimal.
Sunlight exposure. You don’t really expose yourelf to sunlight the whole day. A person can have his daily dose of natural vitamin D through sunlight exposure for about 15 minutes up to three times each day. That’s more than enough. Overdosing in vitamin D because of too much sunlight isn’t going to happen. Instead, such long exposures can increase the risk of skin cancer such as melanoma which is the worst type of skin cancer.
It’s recommended by most medical experts to make use of sun protection when UV radiations are high or even moderate. UV rays aren’t visible so there’s no telling if you are being exposed or not. Our planet protects us from the deadly effects of UV rays through the ozone layer. However, the thickness of this layer varies with the different seasons and weather changes. During times when the ozone is thin, some of the UV rays can enter the Earth. To serve as warning against UV radiation, there is the UV Index. This will tell a person the strength of the UV rays on a scale from 1 to 11+, based on his zip code area.
There are several other factors which may affect the amount of vitamin D you will be producing with sunlight. Consider these factors:
- Less vitamin D is produced by people with darker skin.
- The farther you are away from the equator, the less amount of vitamin D is produced.
- Fewer hours of daylight means that lesser vitamin D is produced.
Supplements. Don’t rush to the health store for these. It’s best to find out first about your serum level of vitamin D. You can ask your doctor for this routine blood test when he has his routine physical check-up.
It’s best to discuss with the doctor the benefits as well as the risks when taking vitamin D supplements. By this time, you should already know his vitamin D serum level. Adjust the supplement dose as needed. Too much of this supplement can cause the accumulation of excess calcium in the blood. Also if a person decides to add vitamin D to his regimen, choose vitamin D3 and not D2.
No matter age a person is, the recommended dose of vitamin D is the same. Typical multivitamin supplements contain less than the RDA of vitamin D. To help out, here’s a list of foods which contain a lot of vitamin D:
- orange juice
- soy milk
- steelhead trout
Other Health Benefits of Vitamin D
Aside from being labeled the “sunshine vitamin”, this nutrient is also now being called the “wonder vitamin” and for very good reasons. Having enough of this vitamin may offer protection against just about everything, from cancer and depression to heart diseases and even an early death. Here are more benefits of vitamin D you should know about:
It may prevent vision deterioration or damage. Vision begins to become a problem when people hit 50 and over. This is caused by an age-related disorder known as macular degeneration characterized by a blurriness that progresses slowly and begins near the center of a person’s eye. This impedes the eye’s ability to see things clearly. The chances of getting AMD will depend upon age, genes, and race. With these as the factors, you will have no control over it happening. But staying healthy can bring people some comfort against AMD. Studies have indicated that maintaining high levels of vitamin D can help maintain crystal clear eyesight even if genetic cards are stacked against the person.
It can help prevent muscle spasms. We have mentioned earlier that vitamin D has a role in the proper functioning of the body’s muscular system, how the nutrient keeps the system strong and healthy by helping in the absorption of calcium. Most of us have experienced muscle abnormalities like cramps, twitches, and spasms but we don’t know too much why they happen. These may be caused, as some studies have shown, by a deficiency in vitamin D.
It may slow down weight gain . Alas, this condition is one of Mother Nature’s dirty tricks where we may be accumulating too much weight without noticing it until it’s too late. But there’s always a window open to remedy this and vitamin D seems to be a solution. Having the adequate amount of vitamin D can slow down the obesity problem.
It can help keep a person’s cholesterol in check. There’s a reduced risk of contracting heart diseases for people who have high levels of vitamin D in their systems. With postmenopausal women, they even have additional benefits when they have sufficient levels of vitamin D like having healthier cholesterol.
Helps prevent chronic headaches. It’s not a healthy idea to depend too much on painkillers when you suffer from chronic headaches. Try, instead, the vitamin D way of exposing yourself to sunlight. Studies have indicated that those with low levels of vitamin D are twice as much prone to have chronic headaches as compared to another group with high levels of the vitamin. There are no conclusive studies on the link between chronic headaches and vitamin D but a number of researchers believe that the anti-inflammatory characteristics of vitamin D may help in combating inflammations that can cause headaches and migraines.
Other Ways to Help Reduce Your Cancer Risk
Cancer is a very studied concept which is why there are a lot of conflicting and contrasting reports about its causes and treatments. One study may recommend specific prevention tips which may be contradicted by another. But the positive note in all this is that prevention of cancer is evolving and, hopefully, one day, research would come to an agreement on how to prevent or treat cancer. In the meantime, we need to accept the fact that this dreaded disease can be caused by lifestyle choices. If you don’t want to acquire the invasive disease, a simple change in lifestyle can make all the difference. Here are several tips for cancer prevention:
Don’t chew or smoke tobacco. By now we should all be aware that using any kind of tobacco product can put us on a collision course with cancer. This habit has been associated with several kinds of cancer. Chewing tobacco is linked with oral cavity cancers, as well as the pancreas. Second-hand smoke is as dangerous. Even non-smokers are at risk of getting lung cancer merely by inhaling second-hand smoke.
Avoid using tobacco of any kind and for any purpose. This change in lifestyle can spell the difference between being healthy and death. If you are having difficulties in ditching the habit, talk to the doctor about non-smoking products or maybe some strategy for quitting.
Follow a healthy and well-balanced diet. Making healthy choices on the foods you eat will not prevent cancer but will definitely reduce the risk of getting the disease. Consider these helpful guidelines:
- Eat a lot of veggies and fruits. Include beans and whole grains as well.
- Avoid getting overweight or obese. Eat leaner and lighter by selecting fewer foods which are high in calories. Keep away from refined sugars as well as fats sourced from animals.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Some types of cancer are linked to excessive alcohol intake and how long you have been regularly drinking.
- Limit the intake of processed meats. Many organizations are recommending a limit on people’s intake of processed meats to reduce the threat of certain cancer types.
- Certain foods like nuts and extra-virgin olive oil can reduce the risk of breast cancer. You can also follow a Mediterranean diet which is plant-based and includes healthy fats, veggies, fruits, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. Also, you can opt for fish rather than red meat.
Get physically active. A healthy weight will definitely reduce the risk of several types of cancer. Of course, exercise should always be a part of healthy living. Physical activities can help in controlling yo’s weight and may help lower the chances of contracting colon and breast cancer. People who exercise gain substantial benefits from doing so. Involve yourself with moderate aerobic activities for at least 3 hours per week. Alternatively, you can opt for vigorous exercises for at least 1 1/2 hours a week or a combination of both.
Protect yourself from sun damage. Too much sun can bring about skin cancer which is the most common kind. Fortunately, it’s one of the easiest to prevent. Just follow these simple tips:
- Avoid the midday sun. The rays of the sun are at their strongest at this time.
- Stay under the shade. At those hottest times of day and you are outdoors, stay under the shade. Broad-brimmed hats and sunglasses can also help.
- Cover the exposed areas. Cover as much of the skin with tightly-woven and loose clothing. Don’t use dark colors as they tend to absorb heat. Light-colored clothes can reflect more UV radiation than the colored ones.
- Be generous when applying sunscreen. Apply generous amounts of sunscreen on the skin while outside and keep on reapplying as needed.
- Avoid sunlamps and tanning beds as these are as good in damaging the skin as natural sunlight.
Get immunized. Some viral infections can lead to the development of certain cancers. Best to discuss with the doctor or physician about immunization programs against the following:
- Hepatitis B. Getting this disease may increase the risk of developing cancer in the liver. The vaccine for this is highly recommended for those who are high-risk.
- Human Papillomavirus or HPV. This is a type of sexually transmitted diseases caused by a virus which may lead to different types of genital cancers such as cervical cancer. It can also cause squamous cell cancers of the neck and head. The vaccine is suitable for young boys and girls. It can also be administered to adult women and men who were not vaccinated as adolescents.
Avoid risky habits or behaviors. This should be self-explanatory. Simply avoid situations which may lead to infections which, in turn, may increase cancer risk. Here are some of the most common examples:
- Practice safe sex and don’t get too promiscuous. Don’t get involved with too many sex partners. People infected with AIDS or HIV have a higher risk of developing cancer of the lungs, anus, and liver. Those who have HPV are not only at a high risk for cervical cancer but are also candidates for cancers on the anus, vulva, throat, vagina, and penis.
- Don’t ever share needles. This is directed at drug users. Never share needles with a drug user who’s infected. Otherwise you will be susceptible to Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and even HIV. The first two may increase your risk of developing liver cancer. Better still, if you are a drug user, seek help from a professional.
Have regular medical care. Having self-exams and cancer screenings regularly is a great help in preventing several types of cancer such as skin cancer, cancer of the cervix, breast, and colon. An early detection of cancer symptoms can lead to early treatment of the disease. Early treatments are likely to be very successful. Consult with the doctor about when is the best time to have a schedule for cancer screening. Remember, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Start with the cancer prevention today. The benefits will last for the whole lifetime.
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