Despite increasing scientific scrutiny of the benefits of vitamin D, there is still mystery and confusion about this essential nutrient. Part of the complexity is due to the fact that vitamin D is not simply a nutrient. It functions as a hormone and affects virtually every cell in the body.
Because the skin manufactures vitamin D only after exposure to sunlight, circulating levels often drop during winter months. That’s why grandmothers used to dose their families with cod-liver oil rich in vitamin D as a winter tonic.
Science is still trying to figure out whether the grandmothers were right. As so often happens, the studies are inconclusive. Some controlled studies show that children given vitamin D supplements have fewer colds and other respiratory infections (Pediatrics, September 2012). A recent study of adults examined whether 1,000 international units (IU) daily of vitamin D prevented upper-respiratory-tract infections better than placebo and found it did not (Clinical Infectious Diseases, Nov. 15, 2013). Severe illness was less common among those taking vitamin D, but overall, there was no protection against colds and flulike illnesses.
People who have higher levels of vitamin D circulating in their bloodstreams are less likely to experience other sorts of infections, however. One recent study found that overweight individuals undergoing gastric-bypass surgery were three times more likely to suffer an infection following the surgery if their levels of vitamin D (25-hydroxyvitamin D) were below 30 ng/ml (JAMA Surgery online, Nov. 27, 2013). This is a significant concern, because obese people are much more likely to have low circulating levels of the vitamin (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health online, Nov. 6, 2013).
An epidemiological study found that Americans with 25-hydroxyvitamin D blood levels below 30 ng/ml had a 56 percent greater likelihood of coming down with pneumonia (PLoS One, Nov. 15, 2013). Low levels of this vitamin also have been linked to inflammation (including arthritis), cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, weight gain, infections, multiple sclerosis, depression or anxiety, cognitive decline and poor physical functioning (The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology online, Dec. 6, 2013).
In addition, adequate levels of vitamin D are associated with a reduced risk of falls and broken bones, and with better hand and leg strength (Journal of the American Geriatric Society, November 2013).
We will have to wait for better studies to determine the best regimen for supplementing vitamin D for prevention of cognitive decline as well as heart disease. In the meantime, though, it makes sense to prevent any deficiency of this critical vitamin.
Q: I have regular bouts of hormonal acne on my chin, jawline and temples. I read that using MoM (milk of magnesia) on the skin will help get rid of current spots and prevent new ones from forming.
I decided to try this, and after just a couple of days, my skin is glowing. The acne I had is almost entirely gone, and my skin looks ever so much better.
I use a cotton ball to put MoM all over my face right after my shower and again at night. In the morning, I leave it on for about 20 minutes. At bedtime, I don’t rinse it off but let it dry and leave it on overnight. I wash it off in the shower the next morning.
Answer: Milk of magnesia (MoM) is thought of as a laxative, but you are not the first person to discover that topical use improves the complexion. A letter published in the Archives of Dermatology (January 1975) reported that applying MoM to the face helped clear acne.
We have heard that it can be helpful for rosacea and eczema as well as acne. One reader reported: “I am 78 years old, and, believe it or not, I used MoM when I had acne problems as a teenager. That was about 65 years ago. I have been laughed at numerous times when I have recommended it to young people.”
Q: I take statins, and I’m glad I do. I have had some of the “problems” people fuss about, but I am pretty sure they are just due to my age. I am 75 and still working. More importantly, I just had a 100 percent perfect heart evaluation!
It’s so easy to blame little aches and pains on the drugs you take. But if you get rid of them too soon, you may end up needing a tombstone.
Answer: Sometimes people ask us if statins are good or bad, and we have to say it depends on the individual. A man with heart disease is likely to benefit, provided he doesn’t develop intolerable side effects. But a healthy woman with no risk factors except slightly elevated cholesterol may not get much, if any, benefit.
Many people experience no side effects from statins, while others are debilitated by muscle weakness or pain: “My husband has been on and off statins for a number of years. The last time he saw his doctor, he was given Crestor. The pain and weakness in his shoulders and upper arms is getting worse and worse.
“My husband has always looked and felt much younger than his age (66). He was an avid cyclist, but this pain has weakened his upper body so much that now he can’t even ride a bicycle.”
Giving up exercise because of statin side effects is not good for the heart or the brain.
Q: I am concerned that my prescription pill bottle does not have a country of origin listed on the label. I have lived in Asia, where I have seen drug factories. I will never take a generic manufactured there. How can I find out where my medicine is made?
Answer: Ask the pharmacist the name of the manufacturer. Then you will have to do some homework to find out where the pills originate.
We agree that country of origin should be on the label. Until the law is changed, however, you won’t be able to tell by looking on the label.
In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them via their website: www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.