Vitamin D – Not All You Think It Is

Vitamin D is both a hormone and a vitamin. It was identified in the 1920s after a long search for the cause and cure of rickets, which had been a significant health problem since the industrialization of northern Europe.  Vitamin D is obtained from food sources and is also manufactured in the skin through the action of sunlight. There are three forms of vitamin D: vitamin D1 (calciferol), vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Vitamin D2 is the form most commonly added to foods and nutritional supplements. These forms of vitamin D are converted in the liver and kidneys to the hormone, calcitriol, which is the physiologically active form of vitamin D.

What it does in the body

Bones and teeth

The most important role of vitamin D is to maintain blood calcium levels within an acceptable range. It stimulates intestinal calcium absorption and re-absorption in the kidneys, and regulates the metabolism of calcium and phosphorus, which are vital for many body functions including the normal growth and development of bones and teeth. It enables bones and teeth to harden by increasing the deposition of calcium into these structures and may also assist in the movement of calcium across body cell membranes.

Cell growth

itamin D is involved in normal cell growth and maturation and may play a part in cancer prevention. In test tube experiments, calcitriol seems to have anticancer properties, inhibiting the growth of human leukemia, colon cancer, skin cancer and breast cancer cells.

Immune system

Vitamin D is involved in the regulation of the immune system. It has several functions including effects on white blood cells known as monocytes and lymphocytes and seems to suppress function of several parts of the immune system.


Vitamin D plays a role in the secretion of insulin by the pancreas, thus aiding in the regulation of blood sugar. Vitamin D suppresses both the action of the parathyroid gland and the action of a hormone from this gland and may play a role in the treatment of an overactive parathyroid.

Nervous system

Careful regulation of calcium levels is vital for normal nerve impulse transmission and muscle contraction. Vitamin D plays a role in the functioning of healthy nerves and muscles by regulating the level of calcium in the blood.

Absorption and metabolism

As with other fat soluble vitamins, fat in the intestine is necessary for vitamin D absorption. Vitamin D from food and supplements is absorbed through the intestinal walls and can be stored in the fat cells of the liver, skin, brain and bones in amounts sufficient for many months’

consumption. Exposure to sunlight in spring, summer and autumn usually makes up for any shortfall in dietary vitamin D and even brief exposure to sunlight during these times is adequate. There may, however, be problems in winter months in some climates. The production of vitamin D in the body is blocked by anything which blocks ultraviolet light including skin pigment, smog, fog, sunscreen, windows and hats.


Vitamin D deficiency leads to increased production of parathyroid hormone and the removal of calcium from the bones. In children, this results in rickets, a disorder in which the bones are so soft that they become curved from supporting the weight of the body. The equivalent in adults is

osteomalacia which involves a softening of bones and causes bone pain and tenderness and muscle weakness. Other signs of deficiency include severe tooth decay and hearing loss, which is due to a softening of the bones in the inner ear.

Studies show that elderly people, particularly those who are housebound or in institutions, may be at high risk of vitamin D deficiency. A study published in 1998 in the New England Journal of Medicine found vitamin D deficiency in 57 per cent of a group of 290 patients who were admitted to hospital. In a subgroup of the patients who had no known risk factors for vitamin D deficiency, the researchers found that 42 per cent were deficient.  They concluded that vitamin D deficiency was probably a substantial problem.1

There is some concern that the increasing use of sunscreens as skin cancer preventives may increase the risk of vitamin D deficiency. This is unlikely to be a problem in children and young people who do not usually wear sunscreen every time they go outside. However, older people who may be more concerned about sun damage to skin and who may go outside less often are more likely to be at risk.

Vitamin D deficiency is more common in winter in cold climates. This decline may lead to an increased risk of bone loss in elderly men and women according to a 1997 study by researchers at Tufts University in Boston. They examined vitamin D levels in 182 men and 209 women aged over 65. Levels were found to be lower in women. In wintertime levels were lower than in summertime. Travel, vitamin D intake and time spent outdoors increased the vitamin D concentrations.2

Other groups at risk of deficiency include alcoholics, those with gastrointestinal malabsorption disorders such as celiac disease, those taking anticonvulsant drugs, those who don’t drink milk or get much sunlight, those with absorption problems and darker skinned people living in colder climates. As vitamin D is converted in the liver and kidneys to calcitriol, its active form, sufferers of kidney and liver diseases may also be at risk of vitamin D deficiency.


Vitamin D regulates bone mineral density and a deficiency may lead to osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become lighter, less dense and more prone to fractures. (See page 653 for more information.) People with a certain type of vitamin D receptor may be more susceptible to osteoporosis.  As the structure of the vitamin D receptor is genetically determined, this may eventually lead to a test to identify women at risk of the disease.  Research suggests that women with different types of vitamin D receptor respond differently to vitamin D supplements given to build bone.3


Osteoarthrtitis – New research suggests that people with osteoarthritis who have low vitamin D intakes suffer more severe symptoms than those whose intakes are high. In a study done in 1996 researchers at Boston University studied more than 500 elderly people with osteoarthritis of the knee. They found that those with the lowest intakes and blood levels of vitamin D were three times more likely to see their disease progress than people with high intakes and blood levels. Vitamin D may help reduce the cartilage damage seen in osteoarthritis.4

Rheumatoid arthritis

Severe rheumatoid arthritis is associated with bone loss. In a 1998 study, German researchers investigated the links between disease activity and serum levels of vitamin D in 96 patients. They found that high disease activity was associated with alterations in vitamin D metabolism and increased bone breakdown. Low levels of vitamin D may also increase the proliferation of white blood cells and may accelerate the arthritic process in rheumatoid arthritis.5 Vitamin D supplements are likely to be useful in retarding these adverse effects of alterations in metabolism.


Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to several cancers including those of the colon, prostate and breast. Laboratory experiments show that vitamin D can inhibit the growth of human prostate cancer6 and breast cancer cells7.  Lung cancer and pancreatic cancer8 cells may also be susceptible to the effects of vitamin D. Sunlight also seems to be protective against several types of cancer, including ovarian9 and breast cancers, and this effect may be mediated by vitamin D levels.

Colorectal cancer

Several studies have suggested a link between low dietary vitamin D intake and colorectal cancer risk. In a 1996 study, researchers conducted a population-based case-control study to examine this relationship among 352 people with colon cancer, 217 people with rectal cancer, and 512 healthy people in Stockholm, Sweden. The researchers used questionnaires to assess the vitamin D intake for the preceding five years. The results showed that those with the highest vitamin D intakes were around half as likely to get cancers of the colon or rectum than those with the lowest intakes.10

Results from the Harvard Nurse’s Health Study published in 1996 suggest a link between vitamin D and colorectal cancer. The study involved 89 448 female nurses and covered the time period from 1980 to 1992 during which 501 cases of colorectal cancer were documented. The results showed a link between intake of total vitamin D and risk of colorectal cancer.11

Prostate cancer

Low vitamin D levels are linked to an increased risk of prostate cancer. In a study published in 1996, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston collected blood plasma samples from 14 916 participants in the Physicians’ Health Study and measured vitamin D levels. Their analysis included 232 cases diagnosed up to 1992 and 414 age-matched control participants. The results showed a slightly reduced risk of prostate cancer in those with high vitamin D levels.12

The way a man’s body utilizes vitamin D could affect his risk of prostate cancer. A 1996 National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences study has found that men with a particular type of vitamin D receptor gene are less likely than others to develop the type of prostate cancer that requires surgery. Researchers looked at the receptor genes in 108 cancer patients and 170 men without cancer. The results showed that 22 per cent of cancer patients had two copies of a particular gene, while only 8 per cent of the cancer-free men did. These findings support the theory that vitamin D plays an important role in prostate cancer.13

Multiple sclerosis

There is some suggestion that abnormalities in vitamin D metabolism may be linked to multiple sclerosis. The hormonal form of vitamin D can prevent a disease similar to multiple sclerosis in mice. Multiple sclerosis is more prevalent in areas where there is less exposure to sunlight and some researchers believe that vitamin D protects against the disease.14


Vitamin D deficiency impairs glucose metabolism by reducing insulin secretion. This is likely to increase the risk of diabetes mellitus. Vitamin D supplements are likely to be useful in preventing diabetes in areas where vitamin D deficiency is common.15

In a 1997 study looking at the links between environmental factors and Type II diabetes, vitamin D levels were assessed in 142 Dutch men aged from 70 to 88 years of age. Thirty-nine per cent were found to have low vitamin D levels and tests showed that low vitamin D levels increased the risk of glucose intolerance.16

Heart disease

Low vitamin D levels may also increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Research published in 1997 in the American Heart Association Journal Circulation suggests that a low level of vitamin D increases the risk of calcium build-up in atherosclerotic plaques and that higher levels reduce the risk of build-up. Researchers at UCLA School of Medicine measured the vitamin D levels in the blood of 173 men and women at risk of heart disease and also measured the build-up of calcium in coronary arteries (a common finding in coronary artery disease). The results suggest that calcium may regulate calcium deposition in the arteries as well as in the bone.17

Other effects

Vitamin D deficiency may also play a role in inflammatory bowel disease, tuberculosis, stroke and high blood pressure.

Toxic effects of excess intake

High daily doses of dietary vitamin D over an extended period of time can produce excessive calcium levels in the blood with symptoms of unusual thirst, metallic taste, bone pain, fatigue, sore  eyes, itching skin, vomiting, diarrhea, urinary urgency, abnormal calcium deposits in blood

vessel walls, liver, lungs, kidney and stomach. High doses also cause the build-up of calcium in the muscles which impairs their function. Doses of less than 1000 IU daily are unlikely to cause any adverse effects and prolonged exposure to sunlight does not cause toxic effects.

Large doses of vitamin D can irritate the urinary tract. There may be a link between excessive vitamin D intake and heart attacks, atherosclerosis and kidney stones in people who are susceptible.

Very high doses of vitamin D supplements may actually increase the risk of osteoporosis. In an article published in 1997, researchers at the Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles reported four cases of osteoporosis linked to excessive use of vitamin D supplements. Each of the four patients had high levels of calcium and vitamin D metabolites in their urine and were taking dietary supplements which contained unidentified amounts of vitamin D. When the patients stopped taking the supplements, bone mineral density increased. Excessive vitamin D supplementation for six months or longer upsets calcium balance and affects bone mineral density.18

Interactions with other nutrients

Vitamin D is necessary for calcium and phosphorus absorption and metabolism. Pantothenic acid is necessary for the synthesis of vitamin D.

Interactions with drugs

The cholesterol-lowering drug, cholestyramine, and mineral oil laxatives interfere with the absorption of vitamin D. Alcohol interferes with the conversion of vitamin D to its biologically active form.

People taking certain anticonvulsant drugs, such as phenytoin, may decrease the activity of vitamin D by increasing its metabolism. People taking this drug are likely to be at increased risk of osteoporosis and have high vitamin D requirements


Vitamin D supplements should not be given to those with high calcium levels or high phosphorus levels, and should be given with caution to those suffering from cardiac or kidney diseases.

DBM COMMENTWe use very few supplements in our programs – they are selectively chosen from the purest form available.  It is not our practice to recommend supplementation, and most certainly not Vitamin D supplementation, purely from three perspectives:1. The Source is from pigs in SA2. The Source is from animalsBUT MOSTLY BECAUSE3. Of the way Vitamin D3 is processed in the body However, as this is an educational site – we felt to err on the side of caution and advise those that chose to ignore our advice – of the correct RDI values of the supplement.It is our preference to obtain all nutrients from natural sources and the recommendation of controlled sun exposure is our preference.

We are obliged to notify you that the information on this website is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Doctors Across Borders NPO t/as Doctors Beyond Medicine, the author(s) nor publisher(s) take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.