“If I had to give you a single secret ingredient that could apply to the prevention — and treatment, in many cases — of heart disease, common cancers, stroke, infectious diseases from influenza to tuberculosis, type 1 and 2 diabetes, dementia, depression, insomnia, muscle weakness, joint pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and hypertension, it would be this: vitamin D.”
During the whirlwind that has been my life of late, I managed to make my way through Dr. Michael Holick’s terrific book The Vitamin D Solution from which the above quote comes. Before I get started on my review, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve got to tell you that of all the books I’ve reviewed on this blog since its inception, this is the first and only one that I’ve been sent gratis by the publisher. It was strange how it came about. I learned of this book long before it was published and had pre-ordered it through Amazon. A few weeks or so after my pre-order, I received an email from the publisher’s PR agent for this book asking if I would like a pre-publication copy for possible review. I sure would, said I, and promptly canceled my Amazon order.
I’ve been a fan of Dr. Holick’s for years now, reading every paper he publishes, which is a considerable job given his prolific output. I’ve corresponded with him a time or two on a few issues and he has always been very generous with his advice. I consider him THE authority on vitamin D. So, I was eager to dig into his book.
I wasn’t disappointed.
I figured that somewhere along the way, Dr. Holick had gotten intrigued with vitamin D, had pursued his interest and had become sort of a guru. But in reading his book, I learned that he is much more than that. He began studying vitamin D as a graduate student and ended up being the person who actually discovered 1,25 (OH)D, the major circulating form of vitamin D in humans. This was back in the early 1970s, and he’s been studying vitamin D without letup since. His book is the most up-to-date source of all the science available about this amazing nutrient.
Dr. Holick sums up the importance of vitamin D to human well being in this single sentence from early in the book:
The sun is as vital to your health and well-being as food, shelter, water and oxygen.
Which seems reasonable since every morsel of energy we consume originates with the sun. No sun, no plants. No plants, no animals. No plants and animals, no us. As Sir Karl Popper noted, we eat the sun. We evolved in the sunlight, so it makes sense that the sun offers other benefits as well food.
Dr. Holick begins his book with a fascinating comparison of a ten-year-old girl growing up somewhere along the equator to a ten-year-old girl growing up in the United States or Europe. The former will probably never learn how to use a computer, never go to a mall, never learn to drive a car and will probably end up spending most of her life outside tilling the soil as did her parents and grandparents. She will probably experience periods in her life of poverty and poor nutrition. By contrast, her US or European counterpart will always have plenty to eat, will learn to shop, order pizza, operate a computer, Game Boy, Wii, and God only knows what other kinds of electronics. She will have her doting parents slather sunscreen on her to protect her skin from birth until she’s old enough to do it herself. She will come of age in a different world, filled with the latest in medical technology.
And she will pay for it with her health.
Her equatorial counterpart will be only half as likely to get cancer in her lifetime. She will have an 80 percent reduction in risk of developing type I diabetes before the age of 30. And she will live longer. If she can avoid trauma or an untreated severe medical condition, the girl growing up in the more primitive but sunny circumstances will have an overall 7 percent greater longevity than her US/European counterpart. She will have stronger bones, lower blood pressure, fewer cavities in her teeth, a greatly reduced risk for heart disease, type II diabetes, obesity, arthritis and most of the other diseases that will plague her more Westernized sisters.
Why the difference? According to Dr. Holick, the equatorial girl has vastly more exposure to natural sunlight over her lifetime than does the other.
But, you might ask, why don’t the children in the US and Europe play outside more in the sunshine and reap its many benefits? A couple of reasons. Most of the US and Europe are too far north to get enough sun exposure to generate the production of adequate vitamin D during a large part of the year. And, second, most parents are so fearful of sunburn that they slather their kids with sunscreen if and when they let these children play outside during the part of the year they can make adequate vitamin D. Since a sunscreen with an SPF of only 8 reduces the synthesis of vitamin D by 95 percent, think of how little vitamin D children with sunscreens of SPF 30 or 45 are making. Zero.
Readers of this blog know that I refer to people who have an unreasoning fear of fat as lipophobes, fat fearers. Well, since Helios was the Greek god of the sun, I’ll call those who have an unreasoning fear of the sun heliophobes.
Why do people become heliophobes? Same reason they become lipophobes: they refuse to think.
Just as lipophobes see a heart attack in every morsel of fat, heliophobes see skin cancer in every ray of sunshine.
To give them their due, the heliophobes have at least a smidgen of data to bolster their point of view. Unlike the lipophobes, who have no reliable data demonstrating that saturated fat causes heart disease, the heliophobes can point convincingly at the data showing sun exposure causes problems for the skin.
Unquestionably, excess sun exposure causes premature aging of the skin and a couple of types of skin cancer. Of this there is no doubt. But, lack of adequate vitamin D appears to be related to an entire host of serious problems including melanoma, the most dangerous and deadly form of skin cancer. The most common type of skin cancer from overexposure is basal cell carcinoma, which is just about the least malignant of all cancers, and if treated (by removal) results in virtually no mortality. The same can’t be said for prostate, breast and colon cancers, all cancers thought to be sun (or, more correctly, lack of sun) related. These cancers are much more prevalent the farther north one goes and almost non-existent at the equator.
The trade off, in my opinion, is well worth it. Especially when it’s possible to have the best of both worlds and avoid both the premature aging, minor skin cancers AND the breast, prostate and colon cancers (not to mention multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, and the host of other disorders laid at the doorstep of too little vitamin D) by sensible sun exposure.
Dr. Holick tells you how. He provides charts and tables telling you how much sun exposure you require for adequate vitamin D synthesis depending upon where you live in the world. And he describes how you can make up any difference by taking vitamin D supplements.
Why not just take the supplements and forget about the sun?
Vitamin D made in the skin lasts at least twice as long in the blood as vitamin D ingested from the diet. When you are exposed to sunlight, you make not only vitamin D but also at least five and up to ten additional photoproducts that you would never get from dietary sources or from a supplement.
Old Mother Nature is pretty parsimonious with her creations, and I suspect she wouldn’t have five to ten photoproducts circulating around if they didn’t do something good for us. Just because we aren’t advanced enough yet to figure out what it is they do, doesn’t mean they don’t do something. Thus Dr. Holick’s recommendation to hit the sun if at all possible instead of the supplement bottle.
One of the few criticisms I have of this exceptional book is that Dr. Holick goes way overboard in his obvious worry about the opinion of the heliophobes. Throughout, he repeatedly warns against overexposure as if getting a little too much sun from a day at the beach could lead to one’s body becoming wrinkled and having skin cancers the size of buboes popping out all over within a week. But we can’t be too hard on the poor Doc because the water in which he swims professionally has a high SPF indeed. His colleagues are primarily dermatologists and Dr. Holick works hard not to gain their total opprobrium. As cardiologist wage their misguided war against fat, dermatologist wage theirs against the sun. And just as many cardiologists haven’t figured out that fat can be a good thing, dermatologists apparently haven’t learned of the good sunshine can do. Or if they have learned it, they’ve chosen to ignore it to their patients’ detriment.
The dermatologists are a pretty vocal group and are constantly issuing press releases about the dangers of sun exposure. So sun phobic are dermatologists that in their minds, the perfect place to vacation would be inside a cave. I’m not really exaggerating – they are heliophobes of the deepest dye. And they don’t tolerate dissent. Ask Dr. Holick.
In 2004 I was forced to give up my position as a professor of dermatology at Boston University Medical Center, a position I had held for nearly ten years. My stalwart support of sensible sun exposure just didn’t jibe with the views of the chair of the department.
Since this time the scientific literature has exploded with articles about the benefits of vitamin D and the widespread epidemic of vitamin D deficiency. (I just ran a PubMed search for vitamin D and found 48,552 citations.) I wonder if this silly woman who fired him and was so pompous and cocksure now feels any sense of remorse? Especially since she still labors in obscurity while Dr. Holick is an academic rock star.
Another point I would take issue with is Dr. Holick’s statement in the book that there is no difference between vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. He says he’s performed studies looking at these two versions of vitamin D and found both of them to maintain vitamin D levels in the appropriate range. Since he’s done the studies and seen the data, I don’t have any reason to disagree with him on his findings. But, there have been a number of anecdotal reports showing that people with problems due to vitamin D deficiency seem to have better symptomatic improvement if they take vitamin D3 (the real vitamin D) than if they take equivalent doses of vitamin D2.
Since these are anecdotal reports, we can’t put absolute faith in them, but I would still recommend vitamin D3 over vitamin D2. In these situations where one supplement is supposed to perform better than another, usually the one that allegedly performs better, costs more. So you end up in a risk reward situation: Do I want to pay more to get a better effect or do I want to pay less and hope for adequate results? In the vit D3 versus vit D2, we don’t have this circumstance. Both are dirt cheap, and, if anything, vitamin D3 is less expensive. So if they both create the same blood levels, but one engenders more anecdotally positive reports, why not go with it. My advice is to buy vitamin D3 and avoid the D2.
One more criticism I have of the book (might as well get ‘em out early) is Dr. Holick’s aligning with the mainstream in criticizing saturated fat. I’m sure he hasn’t looked at the literature on saturated fat, because if he had, he wouldn’t have written what he did. But I can’t really hold that totally against him since he is, after all, a mainstream guy (in all but his defense of sunshine), and, as such, would be expected to be marinated in the mainstream biases.
Unfortunately, for a century now, the American diet has been getting higher in fat–especially in the extra-unhealthy saturated fats. This may partly explain why skin cancer rates have gone up, as well as diabetes and heart disease. The average American diet is about 16 percent saturated fat, whereas most qualified dieticians [sic] will tell you it should be no more than one third of that. To make matters worse, there has been a trend toward fad weight-loss programs advocating high fat content (the Atkins diet is probably the best known of these).
Leaving aside whether these diets actually work in the long term to help people keep weight off, diets high in saturated fat may cause a variety of life-threatening health problems and probably contribute to skin cancer, not to mention all other types of cancer. But you don’t necessarily have to go on a traditional ‘diet’ to achieve the results you’re looking for. You just need to start moving toward foods lower in saturated fat and try to limit or evict those foods that contain excessive amounts of fat–which is typically found in processed products (which also usually contain lots of salt and sugar) and marbled meats. There are several excellent eating plans out there that advocate eating this way.
It’s beyond the scope of this book to offer specifics on the perfect diet, but I’ll say that a healthy eating regimen calls for plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, high-quality proteins (“high-quality” meaning they are low in saturated fat but can be high in healthy monounsaturated fats, as is the case with wild salmon), and whole grains.
Fortunately, aside from a few small mentions here and there, this is about the extent of his saturated fat bashing.
For a while now, I have been worried about the long-term effects that will come about from the heliophobes and their constant sunshine bashing. (In fact, MD and I wrote a whole chapter about it in The Protein Power LifePlan back in 2000.) But after reading The Vitamin D Solution, I’m greatly concerned. Conscientious parents have no idea of the future damage they may be causing by never letting their children play outside without slathering them with sunscreen. Today’s children have weaker bones are are much more prone to fracture than children of a few decades ago. As Dr. Holick reports
Even more alarming is a new epidemic in which bone formation in children appears normal but is actually much softer than is should be. Girls today break their arms 56 percent more often than did their peers forty years ago. Boys break their arms 32 percent more often.
I’m sure the girls and boys of forty years ago were much more rough and tumble than the ones of today, yet the kids of today suffer more fractures.
While writing this post I got an email notifying me of a recent study showing that melanoma, a virulently malignant form of skin cancer is occurring with frighteningly high frequency in today’s teens. These are the adolescents at the leading edge of the great heoliophobe movement, the very ones whose parents, in an effort to protect them, coated these kids liberally with sunscreen every time they walked out of doors. Did their well-meaning parents set them up for this terrible disease? Are the chickens coming home to roost? It’s difficult to say for sure, but, in my opinion, it’s more than likely. Here’s what happened.
When I was a kid, I played outside all the time. So did all my friends. We were outside, especially during the summer, from the time we got up until it was dark. Since we played outside most all the time, as summer approached and the suns rays became more direct, we had already developed the base of tan from being outside all during the spring when it was difficult to get sunburned. Our tans protected us from the effects of the sun, blocking both UVA and UVB light.
UVB rays are those that burn the skin and the ones that drive the synthesis of vitamin D. UVA rays are those that mobilize the melanin (the pigment in the skin) and bring it to the surface. When enough melanin comes to the surface, our skin gets darker, i.e., we develop a tan. The tan then protects us from the harmful effects of the sun, allowing us to stay out all day without getting a sunburn and without getting too much UVA, which is important since excess UVA exposure is thought to be the cause of melanoma.
Although many sunscreens available today claim to block both UVB and UVA, when today’s teens were young children, virtually all of the sunscreens on the market then blocked UVB only. Which is probably the root cause of the increase in melanoma in adolescents today. Here’s what happens.
People who don’t use sunscreens and who have good sense get out of the sun when they begin to burn. Avoiding the sun limits the exposure to both UVB, the burning rays, and UVA, the melanoma-stimulating rays. When people slather on sunscreen that blocks UVB only, they can then stay out in the sun for a long time without burning. The price they pay for this is that they end up with an extremely large dose of UVA, which doesn’t cause pain but sows the seeds for later melanoma development, a fate that has in the past befallen many a vacationer to the sunny areas of the world.
Many people labor away in offices for 50 weeks of the year then escape for a couple of weeks of fun in the sun. Since they have limited time, they don’t want to spend it with graduated sun exposure while they develop a tan. They pile on the sunscreen in copious amounts, hit the beach and stay out all day, stopping only long enough to put on more sunscreen. During this process, they accumulate the effects of huge exposure to UVA and often pay the price years later by developing melanoma. Those hardy folk who work outdoors all year long and have constant sun exposure almost never develop melanoma. Why? Because they develop a tan that blocks the UVA. Plus, thanks to their constant sun exposure, they receive the benefit of plenty of vitamin D synthesis, which has been shown to be protective against melanoma. The poor schmucks on vacation who broil in the sun while basting themselves with sunscreen get way too much UVA and don’t get any vitamin D because sunscreen blocks virtually all of the vitamin D synthesizing rays. They are the victims of a true double whammy.
And that is what I suspect is driving the increase in melanoma in teens today: their poor misguided parents attempting to do the right thing. Very sad, indeed.
Along with the increase in melanoma, the huge epidemic of fibromyalgia we are seeing today is in great measure a consequence of vitamin D deficiency. Without enough vitamin D, bone doesn’t harden as it should. It grows, but is softer and mushier and less supportive than it should be. The body continues to make more bone to try to remedy the problem and the bones actually enlarge. This enlargement presses against the periosteum, the fibrous sheath that surrounds the bone and through which the nerves run. As the pulpy bony growth presses against the periosteum, it stimulates the nerves in the periosteum and causes the deep bone pain common to sufferers of fibromyalgia. Doctors who are up to date on their vitamin D knowledge will press the breastbone to try to elicit pain. And if they do, their patient is probably suffering from a vitamin D deficiency. If that’s what the blood test shows, then the fibromyalgia can be treated with a course of sunshine and/or vitamin D supplementation.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading The Vitamin D Solution on a plane, and the guy sitting across the aisle from me was reading Predictably Irrational, which I had read and enjoyed a while back. I kept looking to see where he was in his book, and he kept glancing at mine. After we had landed and were taxiing in, he asked me if I had ever known anyone who had responded medically to vitamin D. He then told me that he had been experiencing severe, debilitating pains in the bones in his chest, back and legs. He went to his doctor, who checked his vitamin D levels, found them way low, and started my new friend on a course of vitamin D supplements, which, in due course, had gotten rid of his problem. He was a pretty tan guy, so I asked him about his sun exposure and wondered why he would be vitamin D deficient. He then told me he was a kidney transplant patient, which explained everything. As you will learn when you read Dr. Holick’s book, the kidney converts the inactive form of vitamin D circulating in the blood to the active form. This gentleman’s transplanted kidney obviously wasn’t doing it for him. Vitamin D supplements did the trick, however, and his pains had vanished.
The subject matter I’ve covered in this post barely scratches the surface of what’s there in Dr. Holick’s new book. I heartily recommend it to all.
Before I sign off here, though, I want to relate a funny story. Funny to me at least. It involves a character who was a running dog of mine back when I was in medical school. Any of you who read The Protein Power LifePlan already met this guy in another humorous adventure of his I related in the section on iron overload. He’s the guy who dated the pig lady.
This guy was, in Billy Bob Thornton’s memorable words to Woody Harrelson in the movie Indecent Proposal, a “real poon hound.” This guy would relentlessly go after anything with a skirt. And, as often happens with those types, he came down with a bad case of herpes. As soon as he got his diagnosis he went into a depression for about a week and then began reading everything he could read on herpes. He discovered that herpes was typically a local infection but that in some patients (mainly immunocompromised ones) herpes could go systemic, which means it could spread through the bloodstream and and create a hellish infection everywhere, often with fatal consequences. His affliction was never far from his mind, which led to the tale that follows.
In those days Zovirax hadn’t been developed, so the only remedies for this loathsome disorder were OTC products that didn’t really work. At that time the main OTC med was Stoxil, which my friend purchased by the car-load lot and coated himself (or at least his infected parts) with at the least sign of an outbreak.
One day he came down with some kind of upper respiratory infection and called me to get something for it. He was prone to these infections, which responded well to minocycline, a tetracycline-derivative drug. I called him in a course of the drug and forgot about it.
Unbeknownst to me, my friend was planning a day at the lake with his latest inamorata. Complexion-wise, he was lily white and usually avoided the sun. A day at the lake was not his typical recreation, so I can be excused from not telling him not to go out in the sun; it would have never occurred to me that he might do so. The sun can be a problem because tetracycline drugs have a propensity to give people who take them a photosensitivity reaction when they get too much exposure. These photosensitivity reactions cause the skin to swell and become discolored and blistered.
My friend took his meds as prescribed, had a great day at the lake, came home with the girl and hit the sack. After he had been asleep for a few hours, he woke up needing to relieve himself. On his walk to the toilet, he passed the bathroom mirror and glanced at the mirror wherein he saw the Elephant Man staring back at him. His face red, blistered and swollen, eyes just slits. He had obviously had a bad photosensitivity reaction (obviously that is to those who knew about such things) after his day in the sun while on minocycline. But he didn’t know this. He flew into a blind panic because the first thing that sprang to his mind was that his herpes was swarming on him: that he had developed systemic herpes. He immediately grabbed the Stoxil and practically bathed in it. Then he put in an emergency call to his dermatologist, whom, I’m sure, found it strange since dermatologists rarely — if ever — get emergency calls.
When he told me about it later in the day, I burst out laughing and have laughed about it any time I thought of it up to this moment. In fact, I’m having trouble typing these words because I’m still laughing so hard remembering. Who says doctors are humorless? My friend even laughed about it later, though admittedly not to the same degree I did. What I found so funny was not his condition but the fact that he was so obsessed with his herpes that the first thought that jumped to his mind was that his disfigurement was his herpes going wild. Maybe you just had to be there.
Don’t let my semi-off-topic detour make you forget about picking up a copy of Dr. Holick’s book. Despite my few minor criticisms, it is an excellent book that provides a wealth of useful information. Just the Q&A is worth the price of the book because in that section Dr. Holick answers all the questions anyone might think of about vitamin D, including the one I’ve been asked numerous times: If you shower after sunbathing, does it wash away the vitamin D. The answer is No. Then he explains why.
There is something for everyone in this book, from studies showing sun bathing works as well (if not better) than medications for lowering blood pressure to discussions of vitamin D and its effects on obesity and leptin secretion. It doesn’t matter if you’re depressed, have multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, osteoporosis or even PMS, you can learn how vitamin D will help you out. Grab a copy and start reading.
Since the last time I posted (which, admittedly, was a while ago), I’ve flown about 8 billion miles, so I’ve had plenty of time to read while in the air. Here is a list of the books on my nightstand right now.
Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization by Spencer Wells. I’m about a forth of the way through this book describing the problems we hunting/gathering humans have had in adapting to agriculture. So far, so good. A couple of medical missteps already, but nothing major. But I haven’t gotten to the real meat of the part on disease, so I’ll reserve my judgment until then.
The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home by Dan Ariely. This is the follow up book to Predictably Irrational, which I posted about earlier. While the first book explained how predictably irrational we humans really are, this second one teaches us how to benefit from it.
Manthropology by Peter McAllister. A fun book written by an Australian anthropologist discussing what wimps modern men (and women) are compared to their Paleo ancestors. According to McAllister, today’s elite athletes would have trouble competing with our ancient predecessors in any events requiring speed or strength. Unfortunately this book won’t be available in a US edition until Oct 2010. If you want it before then, you can get it on Amazon, but you’ll have to pay through the nose for it like I did. I couldn’t resist the title.
The First Cut, Cut to the Quick, and The Deepest Cut all by Dianne Emley. The careful reader can probably detect a theme in these books, which are are police procedural mystery novels set in Pasadena, CA. The protagonist, Nan Vining, is a single mom and has recovered from a near death experience after having been stabbed in the throat while on duty. These have been my escapist books over the past couple of weeks. I’m running out of mysteries to read because it seems that I have read everything written by US and UK (and even Australian) authors. Help! Any and all suggestions will be appreciated.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Goldstein. A literary novel if there ever were one. Probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it immensely. It has so many moving parts that it’s hard to describe. Read the Amazon review if you’re interested.
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridly . I was curious to see how Matt Ridly, an excellent science writer, would approach a more soft science than usual. His thesis is that collective human intelligence will save us from the fates all the Erhlich’s and Malthusians fear await us.
Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information by Vlatko Vedral. Another book that is no doubt not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a physics/quantum mechanics geek so I enjoy this kind of book. It explores the idea that information is the basic element making up the universe.
Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan. Dr. Fagan is an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a fellow member of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club. This book, his latest, explores the time that Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthals co-existed in Europe and how the superior intellect of the former allowed them to survive the Ice Age. Until I read this book, it hadn’t occurred to me that the Cro-Magnons, who were identical to us genetically, roamed Europe for about 30,000 years, a length of time vastly longer than all of recorded history. And yet it seems we know less about them than we do most of the other primitive beings.