Vitamin D deficiency: Lacking the nutrient could pose a risk to this vital organ

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Vitamin D is naturally produced as a result of exposure to sunlight. From about late March/early April to the end of September, most people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need from sunlight. Those who don’t get enough exposure to sunlight can top it by adding vitamin D-rich foods to their diet which include fish, fish liver oils, and egg yolks as well as some dairy and grain products. It is well understood that a lack of vitamin D can cause bone problems, what may come as a surprise is that it can also raise the risk of developing heart problems, according to research.

Researchers at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City have found that patients are fine from a heart standpoint, and may need no further treatment, if their vitamin D level is anywhere above 15 nanograms per millilitre.

“Although vitamin D levels above 30 were traditionally considered to be normal, more recently, some researchers have proposed that anything above 15 was a safe level. But the numbers hadn’t been backed up with research until now,” said J. Brent Muhlestein, MD, co-director of cardiovascular research at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute, and lead researcher of the study.

“Even if any level above 15 is safe, one out of 10 people still have vitamin D levels lower than that. This equates to a very large percentage of our population. The best way to determine one’s vitamin D level is by getting a blood test,” he said.

Dr. Muhlestein and his team have studied the effects of vitamin D on the heart for several years, looking at smaller numbers of patients.

In this study, thanks to Intermountain Healthcare’s vast clinical database, they were able to evaluate the impact of vitamin D levels on more than 230,000 patients.

The 230,000 patients were split up into four groups (<15 ng/ ml, 15-29, 30-44, ≥ 45) and were followed for the next three years by researchers who looked for major adverse cardiac events including death, coronary artery disease, heart attacks, stroke, and incidents of heart or kidney failure. 

Dr. Muhlestein found that for the nine percent of patients in the greater than 15 group, their risk of cardiovascular events increased by 35 percent compared to the other three groups, and the risks faced by the other three groups weren’t very different from each other.

“This study sheds new light and direction on which patients might best benefit from taking vitamin D supplements,” said Dr. Muhlestein.

He added: ”Even though there’s a possibility that patients may benefit in some way from achieving higher blood levels of vitamin D, this new information tells us the greatest benefit to the heart will likely occur among patients whose vitamin D level is below 15 ng/ml.”

Moving forward, Dr. Muhlestein said: “As we continue to study vitamin D and the heart, we hope to ultimately gain enough information so we can inform all patients specifically what they should do to reduce their cardiac risk as much as possible.”

Are you at risk?

Certain people are more at risk of a vitamin D deficiency than others.

As reported by the NHS, the Department of Health recommends that a person takes a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D throughout the year if they:

  • Aren’t often outdoors – for example, if you’re frail or housebound
  • Are in an institution like a care home
  • Usually wear clothes that cover up most of your skin when outdoors

The health body added: “If you have dark skin – for example you have an African, African-Caribbean or south Asian background – you may also not get enough vitamin D from sunlight.

“You should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D throughout the year.”

The NHS warns against taking too many vitamin D supplements however.

Taking too many vitamin D supplements over a long period of time can cause too much calcium to build up in the body (hypercalcaemia).

This can weaken the bones and damage the kidneys and the heart, said the health site.

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