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Osteoporosis Health Center

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The Truth About Vitamin D: Why You Need Vitamin D

WebMD feature series on vitamin D
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Why do I need vitamin D?

Your body must have vitamin D to absorb calcium and promote bone growth. Too little vitamin D results in soft bones in children (rickets) and fragile, misshapen bones in adults (osteomalacia). You also need vitamin D for other important body functions.

Vitamin D deficiency has now been linked to breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, depression, weight gain, and other maladies. These studies show that people with higher levels of vitamin D have a lower risk of disease, although they do not definitively prove that lack of vitamin D causes disease -- or that vitamin D supplements would lower risk.

The Vitamin D Council -- a scientist-led group promoting vitamin D deficiency awareness -- suggests vitamin D treatment might be found helpful in treating or preventing autism, autoimmune disease, cancer, chronic pain, depression, diabetes, heart disease, high bloodpressure, flu, neuromuscular diseases, and osteoporosis. However, there have been no definitive clinical trials.

That's why the Institute of Medicine expert committee's November 2010 review found no conclusive evidence that vitamin D, by itself, offers wide-ranging health benefits.

"Despite the many claims of benefit surrounding vitamin D in particular, the evidence did not support a basis for a causal relationship between vitamin D and many of the numerous health outcomes purported to be affected by vitamin D intake," the IOM committee concluded.

The only proven benefit of vitamin D is its role in helping calcium build strong bones. But that's far from the whole story. Vitamin D helps regulate the immune system and the neuromuscular system. Vitamin D also plays major roles in the life cycle of human cells.

Vitamin D is so important that your body makes it by itself -- but only after skin exposure to sufficient sunlight. This is a problem for people in northern climates. In the U.S., only people who live south of a line drawn from Los Angeles to Columbia, S.C., get enough sunlight for vitamin D production throughout the year.

Dark skin absorbs less sunlight, so people with dark skin do not get as much vitamin D from sun exposure as do light-skinned people. This is a particular problem for African-Americans in the northern U.S.

Next: How can I get enough vitamin D? next button

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Reviewed on November 30, 2010

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