Vitamin D Level and Cancer: Vitamin D Reduces Cancer Deaths? (2023)
A study led by experts at Harvard University found people taking the daily pills were 17 percent less likely to develop advanced cancer.
And those who were of a healthy weight were even more likely to benefit, with a risk reduction of 38 percent.
It comes as growing evidence suggests the 'sunshine vitamin' might be protective against coronavirus too.
Vitamin D is primarily known for helping to regulate calcium and phosphate, minerals that are key to developing and maintaining healthy bones, teeth and muscles.
But in recent years, there's been mounting evidence the vitamin D - which we primarily absorb from sunlight - is also involved in the life cycle and growth of many types of cells, including those that make up the immune system.
The Harvard research, published in the JAMA Network Open medical journal (2020), overturns the initial findings of a study of 25,000 people published in 2018.
Initially researchers believed there was no benefit from taking vitamin D, as they detected no reduced incidence of cancer diagnoses overall.
But they were puzzled because cancer deaths went down among those taking the supplements. Meaning, there was no benefit in terms of prevention of cancer but a reduction in cancer deaths was observed.
A secondary analysis, published last night, found this anomaly can be explained by the fact that vitamin D seems to stop metastatic cancers - those aggressive types which spread to other parts of the body.
Researcher Dr Paulette Chandler, a primary care physician and epidemiologist at Harvard's Brigham And Women's Hospital in Boston, said: 'Vitamin D is a supplement that's readily available, cheap and has been used and studied for decades.
'Our findings, especially the strong risk reduction seen in individuals with normal weight, provide new information about the relationship between vitamin D and advanced cancer.'
More than 25,000 people took part in the study, which spanned more than five years.
The participants included men aged 50 or above and women 55 or older who did not have cancer when the trial began.
The test subjects were divided into four groups - the first group took a daily dose of vitamin D along with omega-3s; the second group took vitamin D plus a dummy placebo, the third consumed omega-3s plus placebo, while the fourth group only had placebos.
The initial results showed no statistical difference in overall cancer rates but a reduction in cancer-related deaths was observed.
In their secondary analysis, Dr Chandler and colleagues evaluated the risk of developing advanced cancer - late-stage and metastatic forms of the disease- among participants who did or did not take vitamin D supplements during the trial.
They also examined whether an individual's body mass index played a role.
Among the participants, 1,617 were diagnosed with an invasive form of cancer - such as breast, prostate, colorectal, lung - over the next five years.
Among those who received vitamin D, 226 were diagnosed with advanced cancer, compared to 274 who received the placebo.
Of those of a healthy weight who took vitamin D, 58 people were diagnosed with advanced cancer compared with 96 taking the placebo.
The team said they found no association between omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and advanced cancer.
The researchers believe obesity and associated inflammation may decrease the effectiveness of vitamin D.
Dr Chandler said: 'Our findings, along with results from previous studies, support the ongoing evaluation of vitamin D supplementation for preventing metastatic cancer - a connection that is biologically plausible.
'Additional studies focusing on cancer patients and investigating the role of BMI are warranted.'
Like Harvard's, most research on vitamin D and cancer shows a link between people who get enough of the vitamin and lower rates of the disease, less aggressive cancers and lower risks of dying from the disease.
But what exactly is going on between vitamin D and cancer - or, for that matter, coronavirus - remains unclear.
In lab studies, pitting vitamin D against cancer cells showed that it can reduce their growth and keep them from multiplying and spreading.
This may have to do with the role vitamin D plays in the life cycle of cells, and killing off unhealthy ones - but scientists are still studying whether what they've seen in the confines of a petri dish is true in the human body as well.
Vitamin D tablets are extremely cheap - a 200-capsule bottle costs as little as $6.00 - although some big-brand suppliers charge far more.
Since 2016 Public Health England has recommended that everyone in this country considers taking a daily vitamin D supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D in autumn and winter.
In April 2020, they issued new advice suggesting that people consider taking a supplement during the spring and summer as well if they're indoors a lot because of lockdown.
Britain has one of the highest levels of vitamin D deficiency in Europe - one in four people are deficient, rising to one in three in winter.
Vitamin D and Pancreatic Cancer
Researchers published (Case Reports in Pancreatic Cancer 2016) the case of an 83-year-old woman with pancreatic cancer "who errantly took supratherapeutic doses of vitamin D 50,000 U daily, achieving a serum 25(OH)D level of more than 150 ng/mL, with no appreciable side effects."
Eight months after diagnosis — and consistent daily intake of high-dose vitamin D — scans revealed "no evidence of disease progression." Further, the researchers noted, "Currently she describes as feeling quite well with no difficulty accomplishing her activities of daily living." They called for further research to investigate:
Nonetheless, given the poor prognosis of pancreatic cancer and the limited treatment options for patients, this case should stimulate further investigation. The daily dose of 50,000 U of vitamin D3 was well tolerated in our patient for over 10 months at the time of writing. Consideration should be given to a clinical trial that evaluates a similar dose."
Vitamin D and Breast Cancer
How to get vitamin DPeople can get vitamin D from their diet, from supplements, and from the sun. However, staying out in the sun without protection exposes people to harmful UV rays, which is a strong risk factor for skin cancer. And getting too much vitamin D, for example, from taking very high doses of supplements, can be harmful. McCullough offers these tips:
- Include naturally vitamin-D-rich foods in your diet. These include fatty fish such as salmon, trout, sword fish, and tuna. Eggs and mushrooms also contain small amounts of vitamin D.
- Milk, including soy and almond milk, is fortified with Vitamin D. Some other dairy products, orange juice, and cereal also can have vitamin D added. Read labels to be sure.
- People ages 1 to 70 should get the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 600 IU. Children younger than age 1 should get 400 IU and adults older than age 70 should get 800 IU.
- If you take a calcium supplement, you may already be getting added vitamin D. Many calcium supplements contain vitamin D.
- The study does not suggest that high dose supplements are needed and does not suggest that most people need to have their vitamin D levels checked. However, if you are concerned about your levels of vitamin D, check with your health care provider.
Sources and References:
- Vitamin D: Promises on the Horizon and Challenges Ahead for Fighting Pancreatic Cancer
- The Incidental Use of High-Dose Vitamin D3 in Pancreatic Cancer