Time in the Sun

Robert Heaney, BS’47, MD’51

Time in the Sun

By Therese Vaughn

Congress Recognizes Dr. Heaney for Pioneering Work on Vitamin D

As the heart of our solar system and our calendar, the sun fuels life on earth and the human body in fundamental ways. If there’s anybody who deserves his time in the sun, it is world-renowned researcher and Creighton School of Medicine professor emeritus Robert Heaney, BS’47, MD’51. For more than 50 years, the founder of Creighton’s Osteoporosis Research Center and former holder of the John A. Creighton University Professorship has studied and illuminated the vital role of vitamin D — the “sunshine vitamin” — in health and disease.

After training as an endocrinologist, Heaney became interested in bone biology, discovering vitamin D as a key that opens the biochemical machinery to our entire genome, enabling cells to function at their optimal level.

Last November, Heaney was recognized on the floor of the U.S. Congress for his groundbreaking work in vitamin D science, osteoporosis, preventive health and nutrition policy. Rep. Brad Ashford, JD’74, of Nebraska stood before the House of Representatives to commend Heaney for helping lawmakers understand the critical importance of good nutrition for a healthy society.

“His accomplishments speak to his perseverance and commitment to innovation in his field,” Ashford said.

Heaney has written three books and published more than 400 papers, mostly on the field of nutrition and the solutions to vitamin D deficiency, for which he continues to be a global advocate. The foremost theme of his work has been quantitative physiology — e.g., how much vitamin D is synthesized in the skin, metabolized and stored each day — and the extent to which intake levels modify those changes.

At the same time, Heaney has engaged nutritional policy issues on an international scale, radically redefining both intake requirements for various nutrients and how they are determined. Specifically, he has shown that nutrient deficiencies produce long-latency disease as well as their classical acute disorders, and has focused attention on the inadequacy of drug-based research designs for the evaluation of nutrient efficacy.

From newborn babies to elderly seniors, vitamin D is crucial for far more than strong bones. Heaney’s research sheds a penetrating light on the part this essential nutrient plays in reducing the risk of several cancers, heart disease, stroke, Type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, depression and more.

“Vitamin D probably affects every disease,” Heaney said.

Even protection against the common cold and flu is linked to vitamin D. During the summer months, when sun exposure is highest, the daylight vitamin activates immune cells so they can better fight infection.

Despite the fact that vitamin D is a hormone produced naturally (and freely) through sunlight on skin, the majority of people are deficient, according to Heaney. It’s no wonder; modern life and work have driven us indoors, and when we are outside, we’re slathering on sunscreen, blocking the solar UV-B rays that convert into vitamin D.

“We need to keep in mind that under more primitive circumstances, we were getting a lot more [vitamin D] from the sun than we do today. If you can think back to your own grandparents, you’d realize they spent a lot more time outdoors. They hung their wash out on the line to dry; they mowed the lawn. They walked to the bus stop or streetcar stop and they got fresh air. There was just a lot more outdoor time and sun exposure. People are scared to death now of skin cancer, but nobody was dying of melanoma back in those days. I fear we have a problem that’s been created by the cosmetic industry rather than a real problem for cancer prevention,” Heaney told Dr. Mercola of the popular health website in a 2015 interview.

While most people today are relatively sun-shy, fortunately, milk, cereal and other food products come fortified. In the early 20th century, it is estimated that more than 80 percent of children in industrialized North America and Europe had skeletal bone softening due to rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D shortage. (Remember Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim in coal-polluted London?) Subsequently, many countries began mandating the enrichment of dairy products and promoting the use of cod liver oil.

A walk in the sunshine, a glass of milk and a spoon full of fish oil all seem like old-fashioned advice from the family doctor, but Heaney’s landmark research extends far beyond simple common sense. His probing inquiry into human physiology has taken him around the world to our ancestral East African equatorial home and back in time to the evolution of our species. He says knowing “how much protein or calcium or vitamin D or folate our pre-agricultural ancestors obtained from their environments gives us a good idea of how much might be optimal today.”

And what is the most beneficial level for today’s general population?

Heaney and researchers at the University of California, San Diego, reported last March that, due to a calculation error, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Institute of Medicine (IOM) underestimated the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D by a factor of 10.

The IOM recommends 600 IU per day through age 70, and 800 IU per day for those older. In an article published in the journal Nutrients, Heaney and his fellow researchers recommended that the RDA be set at 7,000 IU per day.

That’s more consistent with the vitamin D intake of our ancient ancestors, he says, and with data from Grassroots Health, a public health promotion organization, for which Heaney is research director, which has an “accumulated database that is without peer anywhere in the world.”

Answering concerns about vitamin D toxicity, Heaney is emphatic. “It’s safe. 10,000 IU, 15,000 IU is about what you’d get with 15 minutes in July on the beach. It’s important to stress that. That’s physiological. That’s what the body is used to; it counts on getting that much vitamin D.”

In practical application of his research, Heaney, a dynamic and active 88-year-old who takes a vitamin D supplement every day, says he would like to see people in policy-making positions — nutritional, public health, legislative — become comfortable with higher levels of vitamin D “to ensure that we leave no one behind.”

In addition to Grassroots Health, Heaney serves or has served on the editorial boards of all the major scientific publications in bone biology and chaired the Scientific Advisory Panel on Osteoporosis of the Office of Technology Assessment (U.S. Congress).

Heaney received the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s prestigious W.O. Atwater Memorial, considered to be one of the top honors in the nutrition field. He also was one of two physicians earning the National Osteoporosis Foundation’s first Legends of Osteoporosis Award for his “extraordinary contributions to the scientific body of knowledge about bone biology and osteoporosis.”