Vitamin D Deficiency

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Health Current Events, Healthy Living, Supplements and Health, Vitamins and Health

What Is The Real Vitamin D Story?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Vitamin DIf you are like most people, you probably don’t know what to believe about vitamin D deficiency. Some experts tout vitamin D as a miracle nutrient that will help you lead a longer, healthier life. They leave you with the impression that everyone should be supplementing with vitamin D.

Other experts tell you that the supposed benefits of vitamin D are all hype. They tell you not to waste your money on vitamin D supplements.

When you pull back the curtain and look at the clinical studies behind the headlines, a pattern begins to emerge.

Most of the studies that support a role for vitamin D in preventing heart disease, preventing cancer and extending life have been population studies. They have compared populations with low vitamin D intake with populations with adequate vitamin D intake. While population studies are good for suggesting associations, they have their limitations:

  • Population studies are good at suggesting associations, but they do not prove cause and effect.
  • With population studies it is also very difficult to eliminate what scientists call “confounding variables”. Let me give you an example. Suppose someone had low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in their blood because they sat around all day watching TV and never got out in the sun. If they got sick you wouldn’t really know whether it was due to low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels or due to inactivity. In this case, inactivity would be a confounding variable.

On the other hand, most of the studies that fail to find any benefit of vitamin D are double blind, placebo-controlled intervention studies in which one group was given supplemental vitamin D and the other group was given a placebo. While these studies are considered the most reliable clinical studies, they have their limitations as well.

  • In the case of vitamin D many of these studies were done with a cross section of the population in which most of the participants already had adequate blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D at the start of the study. Those studies are incapable of telling us whether correcting a vitamin D deficiency would have been beneficial.
  • Even when the intervention studies focus on participants with low vitamin D status at the start of the trial they have another significant limitation. They are all short term studies. Typically, the best of these studies last no more than a couple of years. Longer term studies are far too expensive. In contrast, diseases such as heart disease and cancer take decades to develop. A one or two year intervention with vitamin D simply may not be sufficient to correct the damage caused by decades of vitamin D deficiency

This is the current dilemma that is creating all of the confusion in the vitamin D story. For the most part, population studies and intervention studies are coming to very different conclusions. And both kinds of studies have inherent limitations that are difficult to overcome.

Fortunately, a new kind of clinical study has been developed in recent years that overcomes the limitations of both population studies and intervention studies.

A New Kind of Clinical Study

Bad GenesThe new approach is something called mendelian randomization. I apologize for the scientific jargon, but let me explain. In this case you are separating your population based on genetic variation rather than on the basis of biochemical or behavioral differences.

 

For example, in the clinical study I will describe in a minute the population was separated into groups based on genetic variations in the DHCR7 and CYP2R1 genes. The first gene is involved in the biosynthesis of cholesterol, which is a precursor of vitamin D, and the second gene converts vitamin D to 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Both genes affect blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D.

This kind of study has several unique strengths:

  • Genetic variations are unaffected by confounding variables such as sun exposure, obesity, smoking, inactivity, and poor diet. If the study population is large enough, those confounding variables will be equally distributed among groups that are selected solely on the basis of genetic variations.
  • These studies are long term by definition. If someone has a genetic variant that lowers their 25-hydroxyvitamin D level, it will do so for their entire lifetime. They can increase their vitamin D status by sun exposure, for example, but their blood levels of 25 hydroxyvitamin D will always be less than someone with equal sun exposure who does not have that genetic variant.
  • Because these studies reflect lifelong exposure to 25-hydroxyvitamin D they are ideally suited for measuring the effect of vitamin D status on mortality and diseases that take decades to develop.

Do Vitamin D Genes Affect Mortality?

This study (S. Afzal et al, The British Medical Journal, 2014;p 349:g6330 doi: 10.1136/bmj.g6330) combined the data from three clinical studies conducted in Copenhagen between 1976 and 2013. The age of the participants ranged from 20 to 100 years and the follow-up was 6-19 years. 95,766 participants in these studies were genotyped for variants in the DHCR7 and CYP2R1 genes which were known to affect 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. 35,334 of those participants also had blood 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels determined. By the end of the study 10,349 of the participants had died.

  • The individual genetic variants included in this study caused a relatively small (1.9 nmol/L) decrease in blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. However, because this was a very large study and the participants with those genetic variants were exposed to lower 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels for their entire lifespan, the decreased 25-vitamin D levels were associated with significant increases in all cause mortality and cancer mortality, but not with increased cardiovascular mortality.
  • When they extrapolated to a genetically caused 20 nmol/L decrease in 25-hydroxyvitamin D, the decrease in 25-hdroxyvitamin D was associated with a 30% increase in all cause mortality and a 30% increase in cancer mortality.

What Kind Of Studies Are Needed Next?

The authors noted that this is the first study of its kind, so it obviously needs to be confirmed by other large mendelian randomization studies that test the link between vitamin D status and mortality.

Ideally, it should also be verified by double blind, placebo controlled intervention studies, but that may not be possible. If one really wanted to verify this study, the intervention study should start with a population group with 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels at least 20 nmol/L below what is considered adequate and provide them with enough supplemental vitamin D to increase their 25-hydroxyvitamin D to the adequate range. That is difficult, but doable.

However, the intervention study would also need to be long enough (decades perhaps) to prevent cancer from developing. That kind of study will probably never be done.

 

The Bottom Line

  • The relationship between vitamin D status and mortality has been investigated with a new type of clinical study based on what is called mendelian randomization. Population groups were segregated based on genetic variations in two genes that affect blood 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels (a measure of vitamin D status).
  • This study concluded that a genetically determined decrease of 20 nmol/L in blood 25-hydroxyvitamin D was associated with a 30% increase in all cause mortality and a 30% increase in cancer mortality, but had no significant effect on cardiovascular mortality.
  • This kind of study is particularly strong because it measures the affect of lifelong exposure to 25-hydroxyvitamin D. This is important when assessing the effect of vitamin D status on mortality and diseases such as cancer that take decades to develop. In contrast, the double blind, placebo controlled intervention studies that are consider the “Gold Standard” for clinical studies may be too short term to adequately assess the effect of vitamin D status on cancer or all cause mortality.
  • This study supports the benefit of maintaining optimal vitamin D status, but it is the first clinical study of its kind and needs to be confirmed by other studies.
  • In the meantime, there is no harm to in maintaining your blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D in the optimal range through diet, sun exposure and supplementation. This study suggests it just may help you live a longer, healthier life.

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 (1)

  • Doreen Harrison

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    Love your newsletter, Health Tips From The \professor. I am on you list and want to continue to be so. Thank you for the work you do. I would like to include some of your work in my monthly newsletters if that is OK with you,

    greetings from Canada

    Doreen

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Latest Article

Best Diet For Heart Disease Prevention

Posted July 9, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Are The American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

What is the best diet for heart disease prevention? 

diet for heart disease preventionHeart disease is a killer. It continues to be the leading cause of death – both worldwide and in industrialized countries like the United States and the European Union. When we look at heart disease trends, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The good news is that heart disease deaths are continuing to decline in adults over 70.
  • The decline among senior citizens is attributed to improved treatment of heart disease and more seniors following heart-healthy diets.
  • The bad news is that heart disease deaths are starting to increase in younger adults, something I reported in an earlier issue, Heart Attacks Increasing in Young Women of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • The reason for the rise in heart disease deaths in young people is less clear. However, the obesity epidemic, junk and convenience foods, and the popularity of fad diets all likely play a role.

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

Of course, we don’t eat fats, carbohydrates, or proteins. We eat foods. That is why a recent study (T Meier et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 34: 37-45, 2019) is so important. It reported which foods increase and which decrease the risk of premature heart disease deaths.

How Was The Study Done?

diet for heart disease prevention studyThe authors of the current study analyzed data from the “Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) Study”, a major world-wide effort designed to estimate the portions of deaths caused by various risk factors.

The current study focused on the impact of 12 dietary risk factors on heart disease deaths between 1990 and 2016 for 51 countries in four regions (Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia).

The dietary risk factors were:

  • Diets low in fiber, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains.
  • Diets high in sodium, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and trans fatty acids.

Saturated fat and meat were not explicitly included in the GBS Study data. However, diets low in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats are likely high in saturated fats. Similarly, diets low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are likely higher in meats. The study also did not include dairy, and some recent studies suggest that some dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk.

For simplicity I will only consider the findings from Western Europe because their diet and heart disease death trends are similar to those in the United States.

 

Best Diet for Heart Disease Prevention?

plant-based diet bestThe study found that in 2016 (the last year for which data were available):

  • Dietary risk factors were responsible for 49.2% of heart disease deaths.
  • 6% of all diet-related heart disease deaths occurred in adults younger than 70, and that percentage has been increasing in recent years.

When they looked at the contribution of individual foods to diet related heart disease deaths, the percentages were:

  • Diets low in whole grains = 20.4%
  • Diets low in nuts and seeds = 16.2%
  • Diets low in fruits = 12.5%
  • Diets high in sodium = 12.0%
  • Diets low in omega-3s = 10.8%
  • strong heartDiets low in vegetables = 9.0%
  • Diets low in legumes = 7.0%
  • Diets low in fiber = 5.7%
  • Diets low in polyunsaturated fats = 3.7%
  • Diets high in processed meats = 1.6%
  • Diets high in trans fatty acids = 0.8%
  • Diets high in sugar-sweetened beverages = 0.1%

So, what is the best diet for heart disease prevention?

In short, this study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat was not included in the analysis, but it is likely that most people’s diets in this region of the world contained some meat. The most likely take-away is that meat does not affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis either, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in Western Europe.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

Are the American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

A recent study provides some important clues. It looked at dietary patterns associated with reduced risk of premature death from heart disease in Western Europe. The study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat did not appear to affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

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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