During National Osteoporosis Month, Explore Vitamin D's Benefits Beyond Bones

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National Osteoporosis Month is right around the corner, reminding most health professionals to counsel their clients about the bone-building benefits of calcium and vitamin D. With help from Dairy Council of California, Osteoporosis Month is also an opportunity to promote health benefits of vitamin D beyond bones and bring attention to a discouraging decline in vitamin D status among Americans.

The human body produces vitamin D when skin is exposed to the sun. About 10-15 minutes of sunscreen-free exposure on the face, hands and arms several days per week is enough to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. However, people who live in the northern U.S. states, those who are not outside often and those with dark skin need to obtain vitamin D from their diets. Fortified milk is the major food source of vitamin D in the United States, along with fatty fish like salmon, tuna and sardines. Other food sources include some fortified yogurts, orange juices and breakfast cereals.

Long recognized for aiding calcium absorption and thus promoting bone health, adequate vitamin D intake helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis. In 2006, studies published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that vitamin D may help reduce the risk of various other diseases and alleviate the symptoms of certain medical conditions as well.

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"These studies add to a growing body of research that suggests adequate vitamin D levels convey a broad spectrum of health benefits, from reducing the risk of breast, colon and prostate cancers to playing a preventative role in multiple sclerosis, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis," said Lori Hoolihan, Ph.D., R.D., nutrition research specialist at Dairy Council of California. "Emerging research also suggests that vitamin D may be involved in optimal functioning of the immune system, improving mental activities and reducing the risk of periodontal disease."

Dairy Council of California is urging health professionals to get up to speed on this research, because health conditions linked to vitamin D insufficiency are on the rise. Rickets, a childhood softening of the bones that leads to fractures and deformity, has resurfaced in the United States as a public health concern. Rickets reached almost epidemic levels in the early 1900s before it was virtually eradicated by fortifying milk with vitamin D. A review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicated that rickets is now back on the radar among health professionals, with 166 cases of rickets identified in children between 1986 and 2003. Additionally, researchers suspect many children and adolescents have borderline or undetected deficiencies, which could contribute to the development of osteomalacia -- or weak bones -- in addition to other health conditions later in life.

What could be causing this reversal? Dietary changes like replacing milk with sodas, juice drinks and beverages such as soy and rice beverages, and lifestyle changes like spending more time indoors and wearing sunscreen have contributed to the decline of vitamin D status in many Americans. Currently, the recommended daily amount of vitamin D for children and adults up to age 50 is 200 International Units (IU). The recommendation for older adults increases to 400 IU up to age 70, and 600 IU for those older than 70. One cup of milk provides about 100 IU. As more is learned about vitamin D's multiple health benefits, many experts believe these recommendations will be increased.

"National Osteoporosis Month is a great time for health professionals to focus on vitamin D. Assessing vitamin D status from current food intakes and sun exposure will enable health professionals to make appropriate recommendations regarding additional dietary intake of this important nutrient," said Hoolihan. "Focusing on small steps -- and foods they enjoy -- will help clients reach their vitamin D intake goals in a realistic fashion."

Hoolihan and other experts at Dairy Council of California have compiled a synopsis of the various vitamin D research findings in the monograph, "Vitamin D: An Old Vitamin with New Health Implications." Health professionals can also download a shorter flier to share with their clients, called "Vitamin D: What You Need to Know about the Sunshine Vitamin," which reflects some of the new research as well as practical tips for achieving adequate intake of vitamin D. Both publications can be accessed at www.dairycouncilofca.org

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