Are Vitamin D Supplements Worthless?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Vitamin D Supplements

Are We Asking The Right Question?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

are vitamin d supplements worthlessWe have been told that vitamin D is a miraculous “must have” vitamin. We have been told it’s not just important for healthy bones. It’s also important for a strong immune system, heart health, protection from cancer, and many other health benefits. We have been told that we should get our 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels tested and supplement with extra vitamin D if they are low.

Now, the latest headlines are saying all of that is wrong. They are telling us vitamin D supplements do not improve bone density or protect against falls and bone fractures. They are telling us to forget all the other claimed benefits of vitamin D. Those claims have been disproved. Forget about the 25-hydroxy vitamin D tests. They are a waste of money.

What is the truth? Why is it so confusing? Are vitamin D supplements worthless?  Let me guide you through the claims and counterclaims so you can discover the truth for yourself.

How Did Vitamin D Become So Popular?

are vitamin d supplements worthless popularLet’s start with a brief history of vitamin D. It all started with the industrial revolution in Northern Europe. Suddenly, children and adults in the large cities were spending the bulk of their waking hours in dark factories rather than outdoors on the farm. They were already living in northern latitudes where sunlight was weak during the winter months. To make matters worse pollution from the factories was creating a haze that blocked the sunlight.

That lead directly to the discovery that sunlight was crucial to our body’s ability to synthesize vitamin D and that vitamin D was essential for building strong bones. The solution to the public health crisis of rickets and osteomalacia was to fortify dairy products with vitamin D. The almost universal adaptation of vitamin D fortification virtually eliminated rickets and osteomalacia except in association with certain rare diseases. The two important lessons learned from this experience were:

  • Vitamin D is essential for healthy bone formation.
  • Vitamin D supplementation improves bone health for individuals who are deficient in vitamin D

As we discuss the latest findings, we need to keep in mind that these fundamental principles have not changed.

In the late 20th century our understanding of vitamin D took another leap with the discovery that vitamin D receptors were not restricted to bone cells. Almost every cell in our body contained vitamin D receptors. That lead to studies showing that people with low vitamin D intakes were more likely to experience heart disease, cancer, some autoimmune diseases, and infectious diseases such as flu than people with high vitamin D intakes.

The final leap in our understanding of vitamin D took place when the medical profession started routinely testing blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D. That is when we discovered that some people who appeared to have adequate intake of vitamin D and/or adequate exposure to sunlight had low blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D. Furthermore, follow-up studies showed that low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels correlated with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and infectious disease. The important lessons learned from these experiments were:

  • Vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased risk of multiple diseases.
  • 25-hydroxy vitamin D tests are the best way to measure vitamin D deficiency.

Once again, these fundamental principles have not changed.

What Did The Study Show?

are vitamin d supplements worthless studyThe study (MJ Bolland et al, Lancet Diabetes Endocrinology 2018) behind the headlines was a meta-analysis of 81 randomized, placebo-controlled studies with a total of 53,537 subjects that looked at the effect of vitamin D supplementation in elderly populations on bone mineral density, bone fractures, and falls.

The meta-analysis only included studies in which vitamin D intake was the sole variable. In many cases the subjects were not taking a calcium supplement. If they were taking a calcium supplement, both the vitamin D group and placebo group were taking the same amount of calcium.

 

The results were unequivocal. In this study vitamin D supplementation had no effect on bone mineral density, bone fractures, or falls in elderly populations. The authors concluded “There is little justification to use vitamin D supplements to maintain or improve musculoskeletal health.”

 

Is this conclusion justified? Let’s put the findings of this study into a broader perspective.

 

Are We Asking The Right Questions?

are vitamin d supplements worthless holistic approachBefore throwing out our vitamin D supplements let’s ask whether this study is asking the right question. I have covered this topic in detail in my new book “Slaying The Supplement Myths” (https://slayingthesupplementmyths.com) with respect to similar studies that had called into question the value of calcium supplements for bone health. Let me cover the highlights here.

In my book I created the graphic on the right to put the question of who benefits from supplementation into perspective. For the purposes of this discussion, I will just focus on poor diet (or, in the case of vitamin D, poor exposure to sunlight). As I discussed above, science shows that people who are not getting enough vitamin D from diet and sunlight benefit from vitamin D supplementation. Unfortunately, vitamin D enthusiasts and some supplement companies have muddied the waters by going beyond what good science shows and suggesting or implying that everyone will benefit from vitamin D supplementation.

This is part of the problem. Once you have created a paradigm that everyone will benefit from vitamin D supplementation, that paradigm is easy to disprove. If someone already has adequate, or nearly adequate, levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D, would we expect additional vitamin D to make a difference? Of course not, but that is exactly the question the most recent study was asking.

In discussing the limitations of their study, the authors said: “It is possible that trials of populations with low baseline 25-hydroxy vitamin D might produce different results because only 4 trials, involving 831 participants (1.6% of all participants), reported mean baseline 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels lower than 25 nmol/L (the level indicating vitamin D deficiency).

In other words, the study did not measure the effect of vitamin D supplementation for people who were vitamin D deficient. The only take-home lesson from this study is that people with adequate, or near adequate, vitamin D status do not benefit from vitamin D supplementation. That is a “no-brainer.”

 

Vitamin D And A Bone Healthy Lifestyle

are vitamin d supplements worthless garbage in outThe other glaring deficiency of this study is that it was only measuring the effect of vitamin D on bone health. They purposely excluded any other factor that might influence bone health. That was a fatal flaw because healthy bone requires a holistic approach, not individual nutrients. In my book Slaying the Supplement Myths  I refer to this as a “bone healthy lifestyle.”

The most important feature of a “bone healthy lifestyle” is this:

  • Calcium, vitamin D, and resistance (weight bearing) exercise are all essential for healthy bones.
  • However, none of them is sufficient by itself. You need all three. You need a holistic approach if you wish to build strong bones.

Simply put, that means unless you include adequate calcium and exercise there is no reason to expect vitamin D supplementation to help build strong bones. Unfortunately, none of the studies included in the recent meta-analysis took a holistic approach to bone health. Some included calcium, but many didn’t. Resistance exercise was never considered. The studies were doomed to failure.

When you include flawed studies in your meta-analysis, you have what computer programmers call “Garbage in. Garbage out.” A meta-analysis can never be stronger than the individual studies it includes.

Other features of a “bone healthy lifestyle” include:

  • We need more than calcium and vitamin D for strong bones. We need magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamin C and vitamin K. If we are deficient in any of these, calcium will not be utilized as efficiently.
  • The foods we eat are also important. Our bones serve as a buffer system to keep our bodies slightly alkaline. Every time we eat acid-forming foods a little bit of bone is dissolved to neutralize the acid. For optimal bone health we need to minimize acid-forming foods and eat more alkaline-forming foods. That means we need to avoid sodas, sweets and refined grains. We also need to minimize meats, eggs, and dairy. Instead, we should focus on fruits, vegetables, peas, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts.
  • Beware of drugs. The list of common medications that dissolve bones is a long one. Some of the worst offenders are anti-inflammatory steroids such as cortisone and prednisone, drugs to treat depression, drugs to treat acid reflux, and excess thyroid hormone. I am not suggesting that you should avoid properly prescribed medications. I would suggest you ask your doctor or pharmacist whether the drugs you are taking adversely affect bone density. If they do, you should pay a lot more attention to the other aspects of a “bone healthy lifestyle.”

 

Are Vitamin D Supplements Worthless?

are vitamin d supplements worthless bone healthNow we can come back to the question “Are vitamin D supplements worthless?” as the recent headlines have suggested. If you phrase the question as “Does everyone benefit from vitamin D supplementation?” or “Is vitamin D supplementation alone sufficient to build strong bones?” the answer is a clear no.

However, those are the wrong questions. If you ask: “Does vitamin D supplementation benefit people who are vitamin D-deficient?” the answer is a clear yes. If you ask: “Does a holistic approach that includes resistance exercise, adequate calcium, and adequate vitamin D improve bone health?” the answer is likely to be yes as well.

What about the headlines claiming that vitamin D is also worthless for strengthening the immune system and reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and auto-immune diseases?  The studies on which these claims are based suffer from the same flaws. They are asking the same wrong questions.

My recommendations:

  • Have your blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D tested on a regular basis. I have them tested each year when I get my physical.
  • If your blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D are below 25 nmol/L (which the NIH considers deficient), you are likely to benefit from vitamin D supplementation. If they are above 50 nmol/L (which the NIH considers sufficient), vitamin D supplementation is unlikely to provide additional benefit. However, that level of vitamin D doesn’t guarantee that you will have strong bones. You also need sufficient calcium and resistance exercise.
  • If your blood levels are in the insufficient range (between 25 nmol/L and 50 nmol/L), the situation is more complicated. If you are close to 50 nmol/L, you may benefit slightly from adding a vitamin D supplement, but the benefit will be too small to show up in a clinical study such as the one that resulted in the recent headlines. My advice is to look at your diet and medication use. If they put you at risk for low bone density, my recommendation would be to add a vitamin D supplement – along with adequate calcium and resistance exercise, of course. If you are closer to 25 nmol/L, you will likely benefit from a vitamin D supplement along with adequate calcium and exercise.
  • Don’t think of vitamin D supplementation as a “magic bullet” that will solve all your ills. Instead, think of it as just one component of a holistic approach to a bone healthy lifestyle.

 

The Bottom Line

 

A recent meta-analysis concluded that vitamin D supplementation did not improve bone mineral density, reduce bone fractures, or reduce falls in the elderly. While this conclusion was definitive, the study was asking the wrong questions.

  • We know that vitamin D improves bone health for people who are vitamin D-deficient. However, only 1.6% of the people in this study were vitamin D-deficient at the beginning of the study. That means the study was really asking: “If people have adequate, or near adequate, vitamin D status, does vitamin D supplementation provide any additional benefit?”  The answer to that question is a “no-brainer.”  There is no reason to expect that additional vitamin D would provide benefit.
  • We know that while vitamin D is essential for building strong bones, it is not sufficient by itself. Strong bones require a holistic approach that includes resistance exercise, adequate calcium, and adequate vitamin D. However, this study only looked at the effect of vitamin D on bone health. Calcium and exercise were excluded from consideration. That means the study was really asking: “Is vitamin D a “magic bullet” that can build strong bones by itself?” Again, there is no reason to expect vitamin D to provide much benefit under those conditions.

My recommendations:

  • Have your blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D tested on a regular basis. I have them tested each year when I get my physical.
  • If your blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D are low, you are likely to benefit from vitamin D supplementation. If they are already optimal, vitamin D supplementation is unlikely to provide additional benefit.
  • Don’t think of vitamin D supplementation as a “magic bullet” that will keep your bones strong by itself. Instead, think of it as just one component of a holistic “bone healthy lifestyle.”

 

For more details and to see my detailed recommendations, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

Does Magnesium Optimize Vitamin D Levels?

Posted February 12, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

The Case For Holistic Supplementation

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Does magnesium optimize vitamin D levels?

magnesium optimize vitamin dOne of the great mysteries about vitamin D is the lack of correlation between vitamin D intake and blood levels of its active metabolite, 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Many people who consume RDA levels of vitamin D from foods and/or supplements end up with low blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. The reason(s) for this discrepancy between intake of vitamin D and blood levels of its active metabolite are not currently understood.

Another great mystery is why it has been so difficult to demonstrate benefits of vitamin D supplementation. Association studies show a strong correlation between optimal 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. However, placebo-controlled clinical trials of vitamin D supplementation have often come up empty. Until recently, many of those studies did not measure 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. Could it be that optimal levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D were not achieved?

The authors of the current study hypothesized that optimal magnesium status might be required for vitamin D conversion to its active form. You are probably wondering why magnesium would influence vitamin D metabolism. I had the same question.

The authors pointed out that:

  • Magnesium status affects the activities of enzymes involved in both the synthesis and degradation of 25-hydroxyvitamin D.
  • Some clinical studies have suggested that magnesium intake interacts with vitamin D intake in affecting health outcomes.
  • If the author’s hypothesis is correct, it is a concern because magnesium deficiency is prevalent in this country. In their “Fact Sheet For Health Professionals,” the NIH states that “…a majority of Americans of all ages ingest less magnesium from food than their respective EARs [Estimated Average Requirement]; adult men aged 71 years and older and adolescent females are most likely to have low intakes.” Other sources have indicated that magnesium deficiency may approach 70-80% for adults over 70.

If the author’s hypothesis that magnesium is required for vitamin D activation is correct and most Americans are deficient in magnesium, this raises some troubling questions.

  • Most vitamin D supplements do not contain magnesium. If people aren’t getting supplemental magnesium from another source, they may not be optimally utilizing the vitamin D in the supplements.
  • Most clinical studies involving vitamin D do not also include magnesium. If most of the study participants are deficient in magnesium, it might explain why it has been so difficult to show benefits from vitamin D supplementation.

Thus the authors devised a study (Q Dai et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108: 1249-1258, 2018 ) to directly test their hypothesis.

 

How Was The Study Designed?

magnesium optimize vitamin d studyThe authors recruited 180 volunteers, aged 40-85, from an ongoing study on the prevention of colon cancer being conducted at Vanderbilt University. The duration of the study was 12 weeks. Blood was drawn at the beginning of the study to measure baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. Three additional blood draws to determine 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were performed at weeks 1, 6, and 12.

Because high blood calcium levels increase excretion of magnesium, the authors individualized magnesium intake based on “optimizing” the calcium to magnesium ratio in the diet rather than giving everyone the same amount of magnesium. The dietary calcium to magnesium ratio for most Americans is 2.6 to 1 or higher. Based on their previous work, they considered an “ideal” calcium to magnesium ratio to be 2.3 to 1. The mean daily dose of magnesium supplementation in this study was 205 mg, with a range from 77 to 390 mg to achieve the “ideal” calcium to magnesium ratio. The placebo was an identical gel capsule containing microcrystalline cellulose.

Two 24-hour dietary recalls were conducted at baseline to determine baseline dietary intake of calcium and magnesium. Four additional 24-hour dietary recalls were performed during the 12-week study to assure that calcium intake was unchanged and the calcium to magnesium ratio of 2.3 to 1 was achieved.

In short this was a small study, but it was very well designed to test the author’s hypothesis.

 

Does Magnesium Optimize Vitamin D Levels?

 

does magnesium optimize vitamin d levelsThis was a very complex study, so I am simplifying it for this discussion. For full details, I refer you to the journal article (Q Dai et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108: 1249-1258, 2018).

The most significant finding was that magnesium supplementation did affect blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. However, the effect of magnesium supplementation varied depending on the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D level at the beginning of the study.

  • When the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D was 20 ng/ml or less (which the NIH considers inadequate), magnesium supplementation had no effect on 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.
  • When the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D was 20-30 ng/ml (which the NIH considers the lower end of the adequate range), magnesium supplementation increased 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.
  • When the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D level approached 50 ng/ml (which the NIH says may be “associated with adverse effects”), magnesium supplementation lowered 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.

The simplest interpretation of these results is:

  • When vitamin D intake is inadequate, magnesium cannot magically create 25-hydroxyvitamin D from thin air.
  • When vitamin D intake is adequate, magnesium can enhance the conversion of vitamin D to 25-hydroxyvitamin D.
  • When vitamin D intake is too high, magnesium can help protect you by lowering 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest that optimal magnesium status may be important for optimizing 25-hydroxyvitamin D status. Further dosing studies are warranted…”

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

magnesium optimize vitamin d for youThis was a groundbreaking study that has provided novel and interesting results.

  • It provides the first evidence that optimal magnesium status may be required for optimizing the conversion of vitamin D to 25-hydroxyvitamin D.
  • It suggests that optimal magnesium status can help normalize 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels by increasing low levels and decreasing high levels.

However, this was a small study and, like any groundbreaking study, has significant limitations. For a complete discussion of the limitations and strengths of this study I refer you to the editorial (S Lin and Q Liu, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108: 1159-1161, 2018) that accompanied the study.

In summary, this study needs to be replicated by larger clinical studies with a more diverse study population. In order to provide meaningful results, those studies would need to carefully control and monitor calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D intake. There is also a need for mechanistic studies to better understand how magnesium can both increase low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and decrease high 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels.

However, assuming the conclusions of this study to be true, it has some interesting implications:

  • If you are taking a vitamin D supplement, you should probably make sure that you are also getting the DV (400 mg) of magnesium from diet plus supplementation.
  • If you are taking a calcium supplement, you should check that it also provides a significant amount of magnesium. If not, change supplements or make sure that you get the DV for magnesium elsewhere.
  • I am suggesting that you shoot for the DV (400 mg) of magnesium rather than reading every label and calculating the calcium to magnesium ratio. The “ideal” ratio of 2.3 to 1 is hypothetical at this point. A supplement providing the DV of both calcium and magnesium would have a calcium to magnesium ratio of 2.5, and I would not fault any manufacturer for providing you with the DV of both nutrients.
  • If you are taking high amounts of calcium, I would recommend a supplement that has a calcium to magnesium ratio of 2.5 or less.
  • If you are considering a magnesium supplement to optimize your magnesium status, you should be aware that magnesium can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea. I would recommend a sustained release magnesium supplement.
  • Finally, whole grains and legumes are among your best dietary sources of magnesium. Forget those diets that tell you to eliminate whole food groups. They are likely to leave you magnesium-deficient.

Even if the conclusions of this study are not confirmed by subsequent studies, we need to remember that magnesium is an essential nutrient with many health benefits and that most Americans do not get enough magnesium in their diet. The recommendations I have made for optimizing magnesium status are common-sense recommendations that apply to all of us.

 

The Case For Holistic Supplementation

 

magnesium optimize vitamin d case for holistic supplementationThis study is one of many examples showing that a holistic approach to supplementation is superior to a “magic bullet” approach where you take individual nutrients to solve individual problems. For example, in the case of magnesium and vitamin D:

  • If you asked most nutrition experts and supplement manufacturers whether it is important to provide magnesium along with vitamin D, their answer would likely be “No”. Even if they are focused on bone health, they would be more likely to recommend calcium along with vitamin D than magnesium along with vitamin D.
  • If your doctor has tested your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and recommended a vitamin D supplement, chances are they didn’t also recommend that you optimize your magnesium status.
  • Clinical studies investigating the benefits of vitamin D supplementation never ask whether magnesium intake is optimal.

That’s because most doctors and nutrition experts still think of nutrients as “magic bullets.” I cover holistic supplementation in detail in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths.”  Other examples that make a case for holistic supplementation that I cover in my book include:

  • A study showing that omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins may work together to prevent cognitive decline. Unfortunately, most studies looking at the effect of B vitamins on cognitive decline have not considered omega-3 status and vice versa. No wonder those studies have produced inconsistent results.
  • Studies looking at the effect of calcium supplementation on loss of bone density in the elderly have often failed to include vitamin D, magnesium, and other nutrients that are needed for building healthy bone. They have also failed to include exercise, which is essential for building healthy bone. No wonder some of those studies have failed to find an effect of calcium supplementation on bone density.
  • A study reported that selenium and vitamin E by themselves might increase prostate cancer risk. Those were the headlines you might have seen. The same study showed Vitamin E and selenium together did not increase prostate cancer risk. Somehow that part of the study was never mentioned.
  • A study reported that high levels of individual B vitamins increased mortality slightly. Those were the headlines you might have seen. The same study showed that when the same B vitamins were combined in a B complex supplement, mortality decreased. Somehow that observation never made the headlines.
  • A 20-year study reported that a holistic approach to supplementation produced significantly better health outcomes.

In summary, vitamins and minerals interact with each other to produce health benefits in our bodies. Some of those interactions we know about. Others we are still learning about. When we take high doses of individual vitamins and minerals, we create potential problems.

  • We may not get the full benefit of the vitamin or mineral we are taking because some other important nutrient(s) may be missing from our diet.
  • Even worse, high doses of one vitamin or mineral may interfere with the absorption or enhance the excretion of another vitamin or mineral. That can create deficiencies.

The same principles apply to our diet. I mentioned earlier that whole grains and legumes are among the best dietary sources of magnesium. Eliminating those two foods from the diet increases our risk of becoming magnesium deficient. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Any time you eliminate foods or food groups from the diet, you run the risk of creating deficiencies of nutrients, phytonutrients, specific types of fiber, and the healthy gut bacteria that use that fiber as their preferred food source.

The Bottom Line

 

A recent study suggests that optimal magnesium status may be important for optimizing 25-hydroxyvitamin D status. This is one of many examples showing that a holistic approach to supplementation is superior to a “magic bullet” approach where you take individual nutrients to solve individual problems. For example, in the case of magnesium and vitamin D:

  • If you asked most nutrition experts and supplement manufacturers whether it is important to provide magnesium along with vitamin D, their answer would likely be “No.”  Even if they are focused on bone health, they would be more likely to recommend calcium along with vitamin D than magnesium along with vitamin D.
  • If your doctor has tested your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and recommended a vitamin D supplement, chances are he or she did not also recommend that you optimize your magnesium status.
  • Clinical studies investigating the benefits of vitamin D supplementation never ask whether magnesium intake is optimal. That may be why so many of those studies have failed to find any benefit of vitamin D supplementation.

I cover holistic supplementation in detail in my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths” and provide several other examples where a holistic approach to supplementation is superior to taking individual supplements.

In summary, vitamins and minerals interact with each other to produce health benefits in our bodies. Some of those interactions we know about. Others we are still learning about. Whenever we take high doses of individual vitamins and minerals, we create potential problems.

  • We may not get the full benefit of the vitamin or mineral we are taking because some other important nutrient(s) may be missing from our diet.
  • Even worse, high doses of one vitamin or mineral may interfere with the absorption or enhance the excretion of another vitamin or mineral. That can create deficiencies.

The same principles apply to what we eat. For example, whole grains and legumes are among the best dietary sources of magnesium. Eliminating those two foods from the diet increases our risk of becoming magnesium deficient. And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Any time you eliminate foods or food groups from the diet, you run the risk of creating deficiencies.

For more details about the current study and what it means to you read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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