October 9, 2003
The researcher who discovered the active form of Vitamin D, Dr. Michael F. Holick, a Professor of Medicine, Dermatology, Physiology and Biophysics at the Boston University School of Medicine, told the National Institutes of Health's symposium on "Vitamin D and Health in the 21st Century" that the nation faces "severe Vitamin D deficiency" which, if not properly addressed, will have profound far reaching health consequences such as hundreds of thousands of new cases of breast cancer, colon cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and multiple sclerosis.
Dr. Holick said, "We have a severe unrecognized epidemic of Vitamin D deficient patients on our hands. The public health issues at stake go far beyond bone health and involve chronic disease such as breast and colon cancer and high blood pressure. There is a mountain of well conducted, validated science that demonstrates that the production of the activated form of Vitamin D is one of the most effective ways the body controls abnormal cell growth. Regular and moderate exposure to sunlight is the best way to help the body manufacture the Vitamin D it needs. The idea that we should protect ourselves from the sun all the time is misguided and unhealthy.
"Moreover, the 1997 daily recommended allowances for Vitamin D are totally inadequate to protect public health. New science supports a significant revision of the recommendation. Adults should be getting 1000 International Units (IU) of Vitamin D a day, not the 200-600 (IU) that was recommended in 1997. Rewriting the recommended daily requirements as soon as possible should be a top priority.
"Taking diet supplements or drinking foods that have been fortified with Vitamin D is too often inadequate since a patient would have to drink the equivalent of 10 days of fortified milk or orange juice every day. Only regular and moderate exposure to sunlight fulfills the body's needs. We ought not to be like the groundhog that is afraid to cast a shadow on a sunny day.
We need a national public health information and education campaign that encourages people to get the exposure to sunlight they need and then put on lots of sunscreen. It is not a question of a few minutes here and there. It is a question of determining how much ultraviolet light you need to maintain the right Vitamin D level in your blood and finding a way to get it.
"There is not a quick and easy answer to the question of how much is enough? African-American, Hispanics and people with a Mediterranean heritage require more. Blue-eyed, red heads from northern Europe need far less. The one basic rule that applies to everyone is avoiding sun burn. It is the burning of the skin and chronic excessive exposures, not the limited sensible exposure to ultraviolet light or sunlight, that creates the concern about skin cancer.
"The public health consequences of ignoring this epidemic are profound. Today, Vitamin D deficiency is associated with more than 100,000 additional cases of cancer and 30,000 annual cancer deaths. The epidemic extends beyond cancer to Type I diabetes, heart disease and other chronic adult disease. Possible overexposure to ultraviolet light should not be an excuse to scare people out of the sun entirely," Holick said.
Dr. Michael Holick is the former Chief of the Section of Endocrinology, Nutrition and Diabetes; Director of the General Clinical Research Center, and Professor of Medicine, Dermatology, and Physiology and Biophysics at the Boston University Medical Center. As a graduate student, Dr. Holick not only isolated and identified the active form of vitamin D but also chemically synthesized this complex molecule and was one of the first to use it for the treatment of renal osteodystrophy. After completing his Ph.D. and M.D. at the University of Wisconsin, he trained in internal medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital.
While an intern and resident, Dr. Holick established a laboratory to evaluate how vitamin D is made in the skin, and during the past 25 years, has looked at not only the intricacies of how vitamin D is made in the skin during exposure to sunlight, but has also provided global recommendations for how sunlight exposure is important for bone health.
For the past decade at Boston University School of Medicine, he has pioneered the use of activated vitamin D compounds for the treatment of psoriasis. This is now considered to be the treatment of choice for this common skin disorder. Dr. Holick has published over 200 original scientific publications, written over 200 reviews, and edited several books including two that will be published next year.
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