Go slow on Vitamin D supplements

An expert panel opted against a big increase in Vitamin D intake.
An expert panel opted against a big increase in Vitamin D intake. (Bigstock)
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By Rob Stein
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Despite mounting pressure to urge many Americans to sharply boost their Vitamin D levels, new official recommendations are not advocating a huge increase in the amount of the "sunshine vitamin" that people get.

The United States and Canada had asked the Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, to update the official Vitamin D recommendations for the first time since 1997.

The 14-member expert committee concluded: Most people through age 71 need 600 international units of Vitamin D per day. The elderly may need as much as 800.

Previously, experts broke down the recommendations further by age, calling for children and younger adults to get 200 IU a day, adults ages 50 to 70 to get 400 and the elderly to get 600.

The committee also concluded that available evidence does not indicate there are widespread deficiencies, as some have suggested, that require routine screening. Some doctors have begun routinely testing their patients' Vitamin D levels and recommending that people should consume 2,000 or 3,000 IU a day. Sales of Vitamin D supplements have increased sharply in recent years.

In addition, contrary to what some Vitamin D proponents have been urging, the committee did not recommend people increase their sun exposure, citing concerns about skin cancer.

Scientists have long known that Vitamin D is a vital nutrient that the skin produces when hit by sunlight. The amount varies, depending on where the person lives, skin pigment, age and other factors. With people spending more time indoors and covering up and using sunblock when they do go outside, the amount of Vitamin D people create in their bodies has been thought to be falling.

But the committee concluded that most people can get sufficient Vitamin D from their diets or by taking Vitamin D supplements. Milk and other foods are fortified with Vitamin D, and it occurs naturally in others, such as fatty fish.

A flurry of research indicating that Vitamin D may have a dizzying array of health benefits and that many people may have insufficient levels, had reignited an intense debate over whether federal guidelines were outdated, leaving millions unnecessarily vulnerable to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, the flu and other ailments.

After reviewing nearly 1,000 published studies along with testimony from scientists and others, the expert committee concluded that Vitamin D and calcium play an important role in creating and maintaining strong bones.

But the committee also concluded that while further research was warranted into Vitamin D's role in other health issues, at this point the evidence is mixed and inconclusive. The committee noted that other nutrients, such as Vitamin E, were thought to have a host of health benefits, an idea that was later disproved. (In some cases it was found to be dangerous to take Vitamin E supplements.)

The recommendations left many proponents of higher Vitamin D intakes bitterly disappointed. "I think they spent a lot of money for nothing basically," said Bruce Hollis of the Medical University of South Carolina.

Michael Holick of Boston University, one of the leading proponents of the supposed benefits of Vitamin D, said he was pleased that the committee recommended higher levels than the previous guidelines. But Holick and others argue that there is more than enough evidence to support taking much more on a routine basis to reduce the risk for a host of health problems.

"I think they could still go a lot higher," said Holick, noting that he takes 3,000 IU a day and advises his patients to do so as well and that the committee increased the upper limit of what was considered a safe level of Vitamin D to 4,000 for adults. "I think there's no downside to increasing your Vitamin D intake," he said.

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