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Vitamin D could lower cancer risks, researchers find

Dr. Robert Heaney found that vitamin D could lower cancer risks.A higher level of Vitamin D could lead to a lower risk of cancer, a Creighton University professor found in his latest study that will be published online in the April 6 issue of PLOS ONE. Drawing on results from one of Creighton’s past studies, Robert Heaney, M.D. and researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and GrassrootsHealth, looked at vitamin D levels in 2304 women.

A global expert on vitamin D studies, Heaney looked at women who used a supplemental amount of vitamin D over a four-year period. He found that if a woman’s blood level for vitamin D is above 40 nanograms per milliliter, her risk for cancer is reduced. In comparing women who had concentrations of 40 ng/ml or greater with those who only had 20 ng/ml or less, women with vitamin D concentrations of 40 ng/ml had a 67 percent lower risk of cancer.

The new PLOS ONE study sought to determine how much vitamin D was required to effectively reduce cancer risk. The researchers employed a non-traditional approach, pooling analyses of two previous studies of different types: a randomized clinical trial of 1,169 women and a prospective cohort study of 1,135 women. A clinical trial focuses upon whether a specific test or treatment is safe and effective. A prospective study looks for outcomes during the study period, in this case incidence of cancer among participants.

The only accurate measure of vitamin D levels in a person is a blood test. In the Lappe trial cohort, the median blood serum level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (created by the hydroxylation of vitamin D3) was 30 ng/ml. In the GrassrootsHealth prospective cohort, it was higher: 48 ng/ml.

Heaney and UCSD and GrassrootsHealth researchers found that the age-adjusted cancer incidence was 1,020 cases 100,000 person-years in the Lappe cohort and 722 per 100,000 person-years in the GrassrootsHealth cohort. Cancer incidence declined with increased 25(OH)D. Women with 25(OH)D concentrations of 40 ng/ml or greater had a 67 percent lower risk of cancer than women with levels of 20 ng/ml or less.

Heaney also noted the importance of sunlight in vitamin D absorption. While ancestors spent a lot of time outdoors in direct sunlight, today time is spent behind computer screens.

“Be sure you’re getting as much vitamin D as nature would give you under natural circumstances and you were wandering around outdoors exposing a lot of skin in the summer,” Heaney said.

He refers to a study in which vitamin D levels were analyzed for native tribes in East Africa. They received nearly 10,000 international units per day of vitamin D and had lower cancer risk.

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine recommended a vitamin D dosage of 600 international units per day. That’s not enough, says Heaney. But what is enough? For Heaney, he believes people should first discover how much vitamin D is in their blood levels, as the GrassrootsHealth participants discovered.

“This is your blood level right now. You know how much you’re taking; if you want it higher, increase your dose. So then everybody is in control of their own vitamin D, nutritional status that way, instead of having to be dependent on lab tests and physicians,” Heaney said.

Drawing on results from his study, Heaney believes vitamin D needs to be widely discussed.

“We have got to find a way to translate [these studies] into policy; public health policy,” Heaney said.

Researchers found that prevention is critical to solve rising incidences of cancer.

Funding for this study came, in part, from Bio-Tech Pharmacal, Pure North S’Energy Foundation and the Vitamin D Society. Funding for the Lappe study came from Department of Health and Human Services grant AG14683-01A2. Funding for the GrassrootsHealth study was through self-sponsorship by participants and donations from the funders listed above.

Co-authors include SL McDonnell, CA Baggerly, CB French, LL Baggerly, GrassrootsHealth, California; ED Gorham and CF Garl, UC San Diego; and JM Lappe and RP Heaney, Creighton University.

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.