Vitamin D and Cancer Risk?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Vitamin D and Cancer Risk

Does Vitamin D Reduce Cancer Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

vitamin d and cancer riskThe relationship between vitamin D and cancer risk is controversial. Some studies suggest that vitamin D reduces cancer risk. In those studies, the risk reduction was strongest for colon cancer, lung cancer, and breast cancer. However, other studies have found no association between vitamin D status and cancer risk.

Most previous studies have been conducted in European and American populations. Very few of the studies have been done in Asian populations. So, the authors of the current study (S. Budhathoki et al, BMJ 2018; 360:k671, doi: 10.1136/bmj.k671 ) focused their attention on the Japanese population.

How Was The Study Done?

vitamin d and cancer risk studyThe data for this study were drawn from the much larger Japanese Public Health Center (JPHC) Study. THE JPHC Study is an ongoing study investigating the role of lifestyle and other factors on the risk of cancer and other diseases. The study began in 1990 and enrolled 140, 420 participants aged 40-59.

All participants in the JPHC study filled out a detailed food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study. A subset of participants also donated blood upon entry into the study for determination of 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels (the most reliable measurement of vitamin D status). It is this subset of participants who formed the basis of the current study.

There were 33,736 participants in this study. Based on plasma 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels at entry into the study, the participants were divided into four groups of around 1000 participants.

  • Group 1 had a median serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 36.9 nmol/L.
  • Group 2 had a median serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level 48.4 nmol/L.
  • Group 3 had a median serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 56.9 nmol/L.
  • Group 4 had a median serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 72.6 nmol/L.

For reference, the NIH considers < 30 nmol/L to be deficient, 30 to < 50 nmol/L to be insufficient for bone and overall health, > 50 nmol/L to be sufficient, and > 150 nmol/L to be potentially associated with adverse effects. By these criteria, group 1 had insufficient serum levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D, group 2 was borderline, and groups 3 and 4 had sufficient serum levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D.

The participants were followed for a total of 19 years. During this time 3301 participants developed cancer. The cancer incidence in groups 2, 3 and 4 were compared to the cancer incidence in group 1 to determine the effect of vitamin D status on cancer risk.

 

Vitamin D and Cancer Risk

 

vitamin d and cancer risk study resultsThe results of the Vitamin D and cancer risk study were:

  • Vitamin D reduced total cancer risk by up to 25%.
  • Vitamin D reduced the risk of liver cancer by up to 55%.
  • Vitamin D reduced the risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer by up to 44%.
  • There was a trend towards reduction of colon, liver, and prostate cancer by vitamin D, but the results did not quite reach significance.
  • There were too few cases for most other cancers to assess whether vitamin D status had any effect.
  • Risk reduction was not linear. Except for liver cancer, risk reduction for group 4 (72.6 nmol/L) was not greater than the risk reduction for group 3 (56.9 nmol/L). The significance of this observation will be discussed below.

The authors concluded: “Our findings support the hypothesis that vitamin D may confer protection against cancer. Nevertheless, the lower risk associated with higher circulating vitamin D concentrations seemed to show a ceiling effect, which may suggest that although maintaining an optimal 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration is important for prevention of cancer, having a concentration beyond this optimal level may provide no further benefit.”

 

Why Is The Association of Vitamin D And Cancer Risk So Confusing?

 

vitamin d and cancer risk confusionSo why do some studies demonstrate confusing data on Vitamin D and cancer risk?  The “ceiling effect” mentioned by the authors of this study may explain much of the variation in results from previous trials. As I say in my upcoming book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths” , supplementation is most likely to be effective when the subjects are deficient in that nutrient at the beginning of the study. If they are starting with adequate levels of the nutrient, supplementation is unlikely to provide additional benefit.

While that statement seems to be obvious, many previous studies have ignored the beginning nutritional status. Some have not measured 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels at the beginning of the study. Others have measured starting 25-hydroxyvitamin levels but have not considered the starting levels in interpretation of their data.

Group 1 in the current study clearly had inadequate 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. That may be why the groups with sufficient 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels showed a reduction in risk. The low baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D is logical because most of Japan lies north of the United States, so sun exposure is less. In addition, the authors stated that food fortification and supplementation with vitamin D is much less in Japan than the US. In contrast, the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D status in many US studies is significantly higher.

The authors did a thorough analysis of previous studies. In general, studies with a low baseline level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D showed a reduction in cancer risk by vitamin D. Studies with a higher baseline level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D showed no effect.

This analysis does not permit a definitive conclusion, but it clearly defines how future studies should be designed. Simply put, to reliably test whether vitamin D reduces cancer risk, the experiment must be designed in such a way that the baseline 25-hydroxyvitamin D level is in the inadequate range. Otherwise, there is no reason to expect that higher levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D will confer any benefit.

 

The Bottom Line:

 

A recent study looked at the effect of vitamin D status (serum 25-hydroxyvitaminD levels) on cancer risk. The study reported:

  • Vitamin D reduced total cancer risk by up to 25%.
  • Vitamin D reduced the risk of liver cancer by up to 55%.
  • Vitamin D reduced the risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer by up to 44%.
  • There was a trend towards reduction of colon, liver, and prostate cancer by vitamin D, but the results did not quite reach significance.
  • There were too few cases for most other cancers to assess whether vitamin D status had any effect.
  • Risk reduction was not linear. Except for liver cancer, risk reduction for group 4 (72.6 nmol/L) was not greater than the risk reduction for group 3 (56.9 nmol/L).

The authors concluded: “Our findings support the hypothesis that vitamin D may confer protection against cancer. Nevertheless, the lower risk associated with higher circulating vitamin D concentrations seemed to show a ceiling effect, which may suggest that although maintaining an optimal 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration is important for prevention of cancer, having a concentration beyond this optimal level may provide no further benefit.”

The “ceiling effect” mentioned by the authors of this study may explain much of the variation in results from previous trials.

For more details, 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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Comments (4)

  • Kathleen-Marie

    |

    It’s important if we are taking a calcium supplement to be sure we are also getting adequate vitamin D from diet (mushrooms, eggs, fish), sunshine on the exposed skin midday in the summer, or our D3 supplementation. Especially for diets high in vitamin A, D is important too. All possibly affecting the cancer and disease prevention quality of circulating D2/3 in the bloodstream. It’s important to remember that vitamin D is a hormone precursor, or has hormone like affects on metabolism in general as well. In the animal world — reindeer moving North due to hotter temperatures (which means more suffocating flies in their nostrils), the reindeer are beginning to suffer from D deficiencies, even getting rickets and not being able to stand up well as babies. Wise vets and Laplanders have been putting a lot of lichen (which is also what our birds eat in the winter as source for D supplementation) in reindeer feeding areas. It’s so important for good immune function! I notice backyard birds eating lichen on rainy days perching on fallen tree branches around my feeders. Chimpanzes and other research and zoo animals also need D supplementation in their “chow” feed, along with fresh veggies and roots, to keep well and happier.

    Reply

  • Mary Butler

    |

    It asked me if chrome could access all of my files etc and I said no…so it didn’t download.

    Reply

  • Laura Nokes Lang

    |

    Thank you for letting us know the good news about eggs. I have always enjoyed eggs and usually have at least one a day. Now I know I’m not killing myself doing that, I feel better.

    Reply

  • Caroline

    |

    Dr., unfortunately I have seen women young and over age 55 with super low BP and that is dangerous. I chew on two REAL licorice pieces on the days my BP is too low and I am over 80 and I get back my energy and brain working well. I do take the OmegaGuard and sell a lot of it, thank goodness. But then I still have some trust left in Shaklee.

    Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, 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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