Have you ever noticed the pendulum swings that occur in medical news? One day coconut oil is terrible for you – the next it’s the healthiest oil you can use. Today there’s a new wonder drug for arthritis – tomorrow it’s causing heart attacks and cancer.
Well, the same thing happens in the world of supplements. Alternative doctors, including yours truly, have been suggesting high doses of vitamin D for years. But then came the pendulum swing last week. A new study asked the question “How much vitamin D is too much?” And the results of this study suggest you’re wasting your money if you’re taking high doses of this nutrient. But what’s the truth?
Pendulum swings can be good. It’s always good to correct over-reactions. And people often push products so hard they create over-reactions. So it’s good to bring things back to some normalcy. However, some pendulum swings come out of a hysteria that doesn’t look at all the facts.
So when a new study comes out – like this new vitamin D study – that creates a pendulum swing, we have to look at the facts and see if they’re all included – or if the study is missing something.
For this study, researchers at the Cumming School of Medicine’s McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health looked at vitamin D supplementation for three years. They published their information in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a major medical journal followed by all the press. So this story received widespread attention.
In the study, the researchers showed there is no benefit in taking high doses of vitamin D. That’s a major pendulum swing, considering so many other studies showed just the opposite. So, again, we have to look at the facts.
Study Uses New Technology
The study followed 300 volunteers between the ages of 55 and 70 in a double-blind, randomized clinical trial. The goal of the study was to test the hypothesis that with increasing doses of vitamin D, there would be a dose-related increase in bone density and bone strength. They gave one-third of the participants 400 IU of vitamin D per day. They gave another third 4,000 IU per day. And they gave the final third 10,000 IU per day.
The researchers checked the bone density and bone strength of the participants using a new, high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scan of bone at the wrist and ankle. This new technology is called an XtremeCT, and it’s used only for research – not medical diagnostics in a clinic or hospital.
First, a note about the XtremeCT. When the study started, there was only one of its kind in the world and it was located in the McCaig Institute’s new Centre for Mobility and Joint Health. This technology is supposed to allow researchers to look at bone microarchitecture in detail never seen before. However, this ability hasn’t been proven conclusively. It’s impressive technology, but it’s new and we don’t know its full capability or limitations at this point. And, as we’ve seen in the past, technology does have limitations.
This is true with the standard bone density testing, which uses dual-X-ray absorptiometry (DXA). DXA is currently the most widely used tool for determining bone density. But it has problems. Most experts consider DXA an imperfect and intermediate technology. DXA is subject to artifact from arthritis and body composition, and also cannot account for geometric or material properties of bone which are also important components of bone strength.
The researchers in this study were aware of these potential limitations, so they used both XtremeCT and DXA. And they also collected fasting blood samples at the beginning of the study and at 3, 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, and 36 months. They even collected urine samples annually.
Bone mineral density is determined by measuring the amount of calcium and other minerals in a defined segment of bone. The theory is that the lower the bone density, the greater the risk for bone fracture. This isn’t always true, as I’ll discuss in a moment.
It’s normal for adults to lose bone-mineral density as they age. In this study, the DXA results showed a modest decrease in bone-mineral density over the duration of the study, with no differences detected between the three groups. However, the more sensitive measurement of bone-mineral density with high resolution XtremeCT showed significant differences in bone loss among the three dose levels.
According to the XtemeCT, total bone-mineral density decreased over the three-year period by 1.4% in the 400 IU group, 2.6% in the 4,000 IU group, and 3.6% in the 10,000 IU group. The conclusion was that, contrary to what was predicted, vitamin D supplementation at doses higher than the RDA are not associated with an increase in bone density or bone strength.
Instead, the XtremeCT detected a dose-related decrease in bone density, with the largest decrease occurring in the 10,000 IU per day group. The researchers said, “More research is required to determine if high doses may actually compromise bone health.” In other words, they don’t know if these results actually hurt the health of the bone. They just know the XtremeCT saw a decrease in bone-mineral density.
Let’s Look at the Facts
This study was more of a trial focused on XtremeCT than it was about vitamin D. Researchers are still trying to figure out if the device is accurate or not. And, if it is accurate, what does it mean for bone health. We don’t know enough about XtremeCT to make an evaluation of it. But let’s give it the benefit of the doubt for a moment and assume that it’s accurate. There are still problems with this study.
We’ve known for some time that bone-mineral density is a misleading way to evaluate the health of your bones. You could have extremely dense bones – but they could be very unhealthy. This is usually due to overdosing on calcium supplements. While calcium will make your bones dense (assuming your bones absorb it), it also can make your bones brittle. So bone-mineral density testing isn’t an accurate picture of your bone health.
And yet, conventional medicine continues to believe that bone-mineral density is the defining measurement of healthy bones. But it’s not. At one time, osteoporosis was considered to be a disease that was defined by broken bones. If your bones broke, you had osteoporosis; if you had no fractures, you didn’t have this disease.
Now doctors consider osteoporosis to be a condition where bones have lost some of their density – which is a normal part of aging. This changing definition means that everyone over the age of 50 has osteoporosis and needs to take something to increase their bone density, whether or not their bones are fragile and break easily. This is not true at all!
Bones should be flexible and strong, not dense and brittle. The fact that this study showed a little decrease in bone density could actually be a good thing if the bones are becoming more flexible and strong. Remember, too much calcium – the main measurement in bone-mineral testing – can make your bones dense and brittle.
If XtremeCT is really a more accurate way to measure bone-mineral density, it could still be completely worthless for determining the health of your bones. So this trial for XtremeCT really doesn’t provide you with any valuable information for your bone health.
What You Must Take With Vitamin D
The second fact we have to look at is that nutrients usually don’t work in a vacuum. They typically require other nutrients to work effectively. Yes, one nutrient can have a tremendous impact on your life, particularly if your body is severely damaged or deficient. But for normal, everyday use, it’s best to take nutrients with other nutrients.
For instance, I’ve told you in the past that you could be wasting your money on vitamin D supplements if you don’t take them with magnesium. In one study, researchers found that the body can’t metabolize vitamin D without sufficient magnesium levels.
Magnesium is one of the biggest nutrient deficiencies in people today. Almost everyone is deficient. Many are severely deficient. That means most people need to be taking magnesium – usually 1,000 mg daily.
So this study is flawed by its own science. We know that vitamin D takes magnesium to work properly, yet the researchers didn’t look at whether this factor would affect the results of the study.
If You Want Greater Bone Density Without Brittle Bones, Here’s a Hint….
By the way, if you want greater bone density, I don’t typically recommend vitamin D anyway. Many studies have shown that vitamin D really doesn’t impact bone density. Instead, you should take strontium.
This mineral appears to be one of the most effective substances found yet for preventing and treating osteoporosis. Because of its chemical similarity to calcium, it can replace lost calcium in your bones and teeth, increasing bone density. Plus, it appears to draw extra calcium into your bones, making them thicker and stronger.
Multiple studies show this mineral is critical to helping you build “bones of steel” that make you resistant to life-threatening fractures. One three-year study published in the New England Journal of Medicine involved 1,649 postmenopausal women diagnosed with osteoporosis.
Women who took this mineral, along with calcium and vitamin D, cut their risk of fracture by 49% in the first year of treatment – that's nearly in half! Plus, they increased the bone density in their backs by 14.4% and in their necks by 8.3% on average. By contrast, those who took only vitamin D saw no increase in bone density.
Should You Take Vitamin D for Your Bones?
Vitamin D is critical for your bones. You need it to help make strontium more effective for your bones. And it keeps bones from becoming brittle. But it might surprise you to know that most of the reasons I recommend taking this vitamin have nothing to do with bone health.
The main reasons I believe we should take vitamin D have more to do with fighting disease. The nutrient is a fantastic immune booster and can fight everything from the common cold and the flu to cancer and heart disease. Oh, and then there’s the nutrient's ability to help fight depression, boost your metabolism, and even help you lose weight.
As you can see, vitamin D is about so much more than bones. You’ll protect your bones by taking it – even if they’re a little less dense. But you’ll also be protecting your body against illness. And you’ll be helping your body stay healthy – or get healthy if you’re not already. However, you do need to take more than the RDA of 800 IU to get these benefits. Yes, you need to take 4,000-10,000 IU, depending on your body size.
The most accurate way to measure how much vitamin D is in your body is the 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. A level of 50 nanograms/milliliter to 80 ng/mL is considered optimal for healthy people. A level less than 50 ng/mL indicates vitamin D deficiency. Conventional medicine doesn’t see it this way. They say 20 ng/mL is plenty. But it’s severely deficient and will cause health problems. So make sure you stay above 50 ng/mL.