“It was just really very weird because I went from someone who really just took my health for granted—I really do not take any medication, went through menopause no problem—and here I am at 60 years old being told that I’m danger of getting rickets!” she said with a laugh.
Rickets, of course, is that syndrome of the 19th- and early 20th-century industrial slums that turned young bones into Play-Doh. It was supposed to have been largely eradicated from these parts after the advent of vitamin D–fortified milk in the 1930s, but in recent years, thanks to computers, sunscreen and the decreasing popularity of milk, doctors have started seeing increasing numbers of rickety tots. (The disease is still enormously rare in adults, but some doctors argue that osteoporosis is essentially old-person rickets). The culprit? A “pandemic” of D deficiency, say doctors. The solution? Hefty doses of supplements.
“We now recognize that vitamin D deficiency … is probably the most common medical condition in the world,” said Michael Holick, professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University who is one of the leading D-vangelists (his latest manifesto, The Vitamin D Solution, is scheduled for publication by Hudson Street Press in April, 2010.) “Basically, I would guess 80 percent of the patients I see are vitamin D–deficient.”
THIS MIGHT SOUND sensationalist, but a spate of recent studies support the contention that Americans might have taken their batlike ways a bit too far. Just a few weeks ago, on Aug. 3, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine released a study showing that 7 of 10 U.S. children have low vitamin D levels. And only a few months before that, a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine claimed that as many as 75 percent of Americans don’t get enough vitamin D, a number that hovered around 55 percent less than a decade earlier. Still, perhaps scariest of all is the study published last year, also in the Archives of Internal Medicine, that found a decidedly disconcerting link between vitamin D deficiency and higher mortality rates.
Or, put differently, in our desperate quest to dodge melanoma and wrinkles, we might have actually been increasing our risk of all kinds of other deadly diseases. Like breast cancer. Pancreatic cancer. Colon cancer. Prostate cancer. Heart disease. Multiple sclerosis. Influenza. The list goes on.
To help ward off some of these evils, physicians have begun prescribing ambitious D-dosing regimens: 1,000 IUs a day, 2,000 IUs a day, 5,000 IUs a day, 50,000 IUs a week for people who are really deficient.
But there’s a problem: No one really knows exactly how much vitamin D you should take. While the Food and Drug Administration recommends a daily intake of 400 IUs, many doctors consider this insufficient and outmoded. And while the Dr. Holick cited studies suggesting that as much as 10,000 IUs of vitamin D a day is safe, other doctors remain skeptical, which is making some patients freak out.
Fortunately for these neurotic nellies, the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board has begun reviewing the reams of recent Vitamin D studies with the intention of releasing a report, and perhaps new dietary guidelines, by the middle of 2010. In the meantime, at least one New Yorker has come up with her own, creative vitamin D solution: good old-fashioned self-exposure.
“Right now I’m out in the sun but I’m not wearing sunscreen. It’s scandalous, I know,” said Julia Allison, the sex columnist–turned–Web starlet, as she walked to an acupuncture appointment on a recent sun-soaked morning. “I’ve taken vitamin D supplements before, and I feel different doing that than getting 20 minutes sun exposure. I just think there’s some things that pills can’t do.”