by Jeri Ross, MPH
A common question that skin care professions get from their clientele is… “I’ve heard recently that almost everyone is deficient in vitamin D, that we are not getting enough from the sun. I thought being in the sun was bad for you. I mean I’m doing everything right, staying out of the sun to prevent skin cancer and I’m using sun screen. What do you recommend?”
What is the way to answer this question? The good news is that you can successfully increase your vitamin D to healthy levels without increasing your risk of skin cancer and the dreaded freckles, wrinkles, and leather look due to sun exposure. The following information about vitamin D is particularly critical for women. As a Public Health Educator, I have discovered data from numerous credible sources substantiating that women deficient in vitamin D are at greater risk for breast cancer. In fact according to Dr. Cedric Garland, epidemiologist at the University of California San Diego and other prominent vitamin D researchers 58,000 new cases of breast cancer in the United States could be prevented annually by increasing serum vitamin D levels to 52 ng/ml (nanograms per milliliter). Because of this newly discovered role Vitamin D plays in reducing cancer risks we have the opportunity to translate this important information in to life style behaviors that will help us have healthier, longer lives.
Vitamin D Defined
There’s a paradigm shift going on in medicine as new research reveals a far greater role for vitamin D in humans. Historically vitamin D combined with calcium has been attributed to developing and maintaining strong bones. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin D for years has been 400 IU (international units) which researchers are now saying is far less than is needed to prevent diseases. Vitamin D is now seen as playing a central role in controlling cellular immunity and inflammation, two vital processes that are tied to a host of age-related disease conditions including cancer. The more current recommendation for optimal cellular functioning and to aid in disease prevention is 40-80 ng/ml.
When bare skin is exposed to sunlight UVB ultraviolet waves initiate the conversion of cholesterol in the skin to vitamin D which is eventually metabolized in the liver for utilization by the body. Vitamin D really isn’t a vitamin at all. It’s a hormone that regulates cell growth and helps to prevent the kind of wild cell proliferation that leads to cancer. “Almost every cell in the body has receptors for vitamin D, which means that every tissue and cell needs vitamin D to function maximally,” explains Michael Holick, MD, a vitamin D researcher at Boston University School of Medicine. Research Professor Joan Lappe, PhD, RN says vitamin D enhances your body’s immune response which is the first line of defense against cancer.
The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that more than 35% of Americans don’t even get the minimum daily value (DV) of 400 IU of vitamin D. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention completed a recent national survey at the end of winter and found that nearly 50% of African-American women ages 15-49 years were deficient. How did this happen? Perhaps human evolution gives us some of the answers.
Our ancestors lived naked in the sun for several million years. Then 50,000 years ago, some of us migrated north and south to places with less sun. We put on clothes that blocked the sun and started working in buildings and living in houses. Cars replaced horses and walking. Now we are avoiding the sun altogether and applying sun block to help prevent skin cancer which prohibits the conversion of UVB to vitamin D. All this time we have been steadily reducing the levels of vitamin D in our cells and becoming deficient of the most potent steroid hormone in our body which we are now realizing produces anti-cancer properties.
Aging, Breast Cancer Risks and Vitamin D
Age is a factor contributing to breast cancer. Seventy seven per cent (77%) of breast cancers are found in women over 50, the same time when our skin’s capacity to synthesize vitamin D from the sun slows down. As time goes by and our cells duplicate over and over, we have more opportunities for cancers to grow. Only 4% of breast cancers are found in women under 40. According to the Journal of Oncology, breast cancer is diagnosed in women by:
age 25 1 in 19,608
age 50 1 in 50
age 65 1 in 17
The recent New England Journal of Medicine research report ‘Roads Leading to Breast Cancer’ explains simply that cancer results from the accumulation of mutations in genes that regulate cellular proliferation. Every time a cell divides, slight mutations occur to the genes that regulate cellular proliferation or uncontrolled cell division that characterizes cancer cells. So basic prevention includes doing something about the gene mutation in your cells that make you more vulnerable to contracting cancer with each passing day. That’s where researchers are now discovering the vital role of vitamin D in cancer prevention.
Breast Cancer Prevention, Survival and Vitamin D
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that researchers at Creighton University in a 4 year study of 1,180 postmenopausal women administered 1,000 IU of vitamin D and calcium daily lowered the risk of contracting breast cancer by an astounding 77%. Dr. Pamela Goodwin of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto reported that her studies also linked low levels of vitamin D with breast cancer progression. She found that women who were deficient were nearly twice as likely to have their cancer recur or spread over the next 10 years, and 73% more likely to die of the disease.
Optimize Vitamin D
Vitamin D occurs naturally in very few foods mostly fatty fishes like salmon, tuna and red meat. Milk is fortified with vitamin D, however, most people would have to drink three quarts a day to increase levels for disease prevention. Dr. Holick and others now prescribe at least 1,000 IU daily. Some researchers are advocating 2,000 IU daily. That much is generally considered safe by the American Cancer Society.
Dermatologists who are focused on preventing skin cancer advise getting D from supplements. However, vitamin D experts are more convinced that controlled sunlight 10 to 15 minutes at least three times a week with exposing 50 percent of your body (except your face) without sunscreen in midday sun is the best method to get what you need. Multiple studies have proven that these small bursts of sunlight exposure is equivalent to approximately 20,000 IU of vitamin D. For folks in higher latitudes from Georgia northbound and in winter months from November to March, getting enough intense sunlight for optimal levels is difficult. Also people with darker skin and everyone after the age of 50 convert less vitamin D in the skin. So a prescribed routine would most often include both sunlight and supplements for year round protection.
It is recommended by vitamin D experts that you test your blood levels for vitamin D to determine if you are deficient. Remember optimal levels to give you breast cancer protection are 40-80 ng/ml. Advocates of vitamin D suggest you test your levels during the winter months when there is less sunshine to get a more accurate reading.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM), an annual health campaign first implemented 26 years ago. The National Breast Cancer Awareness Month organization is a partnership of national public service organizations, professional medical associations, and government agencies working together to promote breast cancer awareness, share information on the disease, and provide greater access to screening services. www.NBCAM.org
During October organizations have a ‘pink day’ when staff wear pink clothing or accessories at work to raise awareness and money to donate to breast cancer care or research. Spas and clinics are perfect settings to reach women with messages and information that will help them to prevent and survive breast cancer. Spread the word about vitamin D. Include breast cancer prevention information in your October monthly newsletters and/or create brochures for your spa/clinic. Taking control of our breast cancer risks and chances for survival is as easy as having a healthy relationship with none other than our own sun. Here comes the sun and I say it’s alright.
Your Vitamin D Prescription
- 10-15 minutes midday sun 50% bare body without sunscreen (except the face) 3 times a week
- Or 1,000 IU vitamin D supplements daily
- Winter months 1,000 IU vitamin D supplements daily
Jeri Ros, MPH, has worked in the medical industry for 115 years as a health educator administrator. She is currently a health educator for Insitut’ DERMed and contributes her research skills to the development of advanced cosmeceutical skin and body care formulation. For more information visit www.idermedbody.com.