essential

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tropical paradiseIn the last two weeks alone three articles have appeared in the scientific press about new studies reporting on vitamin D’s many crucial roles in the body. Along with promoting strong bones, a healthy immune system and protection against some types of cancer, recent studies suggest vitamin D can treat heart failure, protect against heart attacks and reduce the risk of death from both cardiovascular and overall causes.

Back in April I wrote an article called “Throw Away Your Sunscreen” about the protective effects of exposure to sunlight against melanoma. Despite conventional wisdom that tells us to avoid sun exposure at all costs, it turns out that the vitamin D our bodies synthesize when exposed to UV light is a first line of defense against developing melanoma.

In an article published on June 9 in Archives of Internal Medicine, scientists reported that low levels of vitamin D are associated with a higher risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) in men. The study showed that rates of cardiovascular disease-related deaths are increased at higher latitudes and during the winter months, and are lower at lower altitudes.

In an article published in the July issue of the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology, on June 12, researchers found that vitamin D directly contributes to cardiovascular fitness. In fact, University of Michigan pharmacologist Robert U. Simpson, Ph.D. thinks it’s apt to call vitamin D “the heart tranquilizer”. Simpson and his team discovered that treatments with activated vitamin D prevented heart muscle cells from hypertrophy, a condition in which the heart becomes enlarged and overworked in people with heart failure.

Finally, in a study published on June 23 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a team of Austrian scientists revealed that low blood levels of vitamin D appear to have an increased risk of death overall and from cardiovascular causes. Harald Donbig, M.D. and his colleagues studied 25-hydroxyvitamin D and 1,25 dihydroxyvitamin D levels in 3,258 consecutive patients (average age 62 years) who were scheduled for coronary angiography testing at a single medical center between 1997 and 2000.

During 7.7 years of follow-up, death rates from any cause and from cardiovascular causes were higher among individuals in the lower one-half of 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and the lowest one-fourth of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D levels. These associations remained when researchers controlled for other factors such as coronary artery disease, physical activity and co-occurring diseases.

So what does all this mean to you? A recent consensus panel estimated that about 50 – 60 percent of older individuals in North America and the rest of the world do not have satisfactory vitamin D status, and the situation is similar for younger individuals. Blood levels of vitamin D lower than 20 to 30 nanograms per milliliter have been associated with falls, fractures, cancer, autoimmune dysfunction, cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

To put it blankly, that means half of all people around the world are deficient in vitamin D and therefore at increased risk for serious and potentially fatal conditions.

Low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels are also correlated with markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein, as well as signs of oxidative damage to cells, Donbig’s study revealed. In a previous article, I explained that inflammation and oxidative damage (not cholesterol) are the primary causes of the worldwide heart disease epidemic. Inflammation and oxidative damage are also contributing factors to diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer and many other diseases.

So how does vitamin D work its magic? It acts as a potent hormone in more than a dozen types of tissues and cells in the body, regulating expression of essential genes and rapidly activating already expressed enzymes and proteins. In the heart, vitamin D binds to specific vitamin D receptors and produces its “calming”, protective effects.

There are essentially three ways to obtain vitamin D: exposure to UV light, food and supplements. The most effective of all of these methods is exposure to sunlight. Full-body exposure of pale skin to summer sunshine for 30 minutes without clothing or sunscreen can result in the synthesis of between 10,000 and 20,000 IU of vitamin D. At most latitudes outside of the tropics, however, there are substantial portions of the year during which vitamin D cannot be obtained from sunlight; additionally, environmental factors including pollution and the presence of buildings can reduce the availability of UVB light.

In northern latitudes or during winter months when the sun isn’t shining, I recommend taking 1 tsp./day of high-vitamin cod liver oil (Green Pasture or Radiant Life are two brands I recommend) to ensure adequate vitamin D (and vitamin A) intake. You can also eat vitamin D-rich foods such as herring, duck eggs, bluefin tuna, trout, eel, mackerel, sardines, chicken eggs, beef liver and pork. If you follow this approach further supplementation should not be necessary.

Before closing, I must mention (briefly) the issue of vitamin D toxicity. Vitamin D is widely considered to be the most toxic of all vitamins, and dire warnings are often issued to avoid excess sun exposure and vitamin D in the diet on that basis. The discussion of vitamin D toxicity has failed to take into account the interaction between vitamins A, D and K. Several lines of evidence suggest that vitamin D toxicity actually results from a relative deficiency of vitamins A and K.
So, the solution is not to avoid sun exposure or sources of vitamin D in the diet. Rather, it ensure adequate vitamin D intake (through sunlight and food) and to increase the intake (through diet and/or supplements) of vitamins A & K. Stay tuned for a future post on the interaction between vitamins A, D & K and their relevance to human health.

THS recommendations:

  • Throw away your sunscreen. Use coconut and sesame oil if needed, and moderate your exposure to sun to avoid frequent sunburn.
  • Get an hour or two of exposure to sunlight each day if possible. Don’t cover your skin (or your child’s skin) completely when out in the sun.
  • In northern latitudes or during winter months when the sun isn’t shining, take 1 tsp./day of high-vitamin cod liver oil (Green Pasture or Radiant Life are two brands I recommend) to ensure adequate vitamin A & D intake.
  • Eat vitamin D-rich foods such as herring, duck eggs, bluefin tuna, trout, eel, mackerel, sardines, chicken eggs, beef liver and pork.
  • Make sure to eat enough vitamin K. Primary sources in the diet are natto, hard and soft cheeses, egg yolks, sauerkraut, butter and other fermented foods. Make sure to choose dairy products from grass-fed animals if possible.

Suggested Links

  • The Vitamin D Miracle: Is it For Real?
  • From Seafood to Sunshine: A New Understanding of Vitamin D Safety
  • Vitamin D Toxicity Redefined

Most health-conscious folks have heard of essential fatty acids (EFAs) by now. It isn’t unusual for a health food store to sell several different brands of fish oils, flax oil and other blends of “essential fatty acids”. We’ve been told that consuming these oils will keep us healthy and protect us from disease.

Today’s nutrition textbooks refer to omega-6 (linoleic) acid and omega-3 (alpha-linolenic) acid as essential components of the human diet, and cite the requirement as something between one and four percent of total caloric intake. When scientists say a nutrient is “essential”, they mean it cannot be synthesized within our bodies from other components by any known mechanism – and therefore must be obtained from the diet.

But are “essential fatty acids” truly essential?

Chris Masterjohn, a PhD candidate in Nutritional Science at the University of Connecticut, has just published a paper which directly challenges the belief that omega-6 linoleic acid and omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid are essential.

His review of the scientific research suggests that omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA) and the omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the only fatty acids that are truly essential – and thus necessary in the diet – for humans. Further, the true requirement for EFA during growth and development (during childhood, pregnancy or recovery from injury and illness) is less than one-half of one percent of calories when supplied by most animal fats, and even less (0.12 percent) when supplied by liver. In healthy adults, the requirement is “infinitesimal if it exists at all.”

So why is this a concern? Excess consumption of linoleate (omega-6 fatty acid) from vegetable oil will interfere with the production of DHA , while an excess of EPA from fish oil will interfere with the production and utilization of AA. So, by consuming an abundance of the oils which are today heavily promoted as “essential” – vegetable oil and fish oil – we are actually reducing the amount of the fatty acids that are truly essential – DHA & AA.

Finally, it must be pointed out that EFAs of all types, even the health promoting DHA & AA, are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). PUFAs are widely known to contribute to oxidative stress, and oxidative stress directly contributes to many diseases including cancer and heart disease. This is why it is important to restrict our intake of EFAs to as close to the minimum requirement as possible.
Most people are far above this requirement, since vegetable oil is pervasive in the American diet. It’s in just about all processed foods (even the “healthy” ones), fried foods and everything cooked in a restaurant. And many people cook with it at home, without knowing what the dangers are.

The best sources of EFA in the diet are liver, egg yolk and butter from grass-fed animals. Obtaining these foods from pasture-raised animals is important, as they contain significantly higher concentrations of DHA and AA (the truly essential EFAs) and fat-soluble vitamins than their commercial feedlot counterparts.

THS recommendations:

  • Gradually replace all vegetable oils in your diet with healthy traditional fats (which are protected from oxidative stress) such as butter, virgin (unrefined) coconut oil, palm oil, lard and beef tallow.
  • Eliminate (or at least dramatically reduce) consumption of processed and fried foods.
  • Do not take flax oil or fish oil supplements on a regular basis. Cod liver oil is recommended during pregnancy, lactation and childhood to provide extra DHA and to obtain fat-soluble vitamins.

Following these recommendations, along with a nutrient-dense, whole foods based diet low in sugar and rich in essential minerals, should reduce your intake of PUFA to closer to the recommended 0.5 (one-half of one) percent of calories, and ensure adequate intake of the truly essential DHA & AA.

Women who are pregnant or lactating, and perhaps attempting to become pregnant, children, and adults recovering from injury and suffering from chronic, degenerative disease can safely consume up to one percent of calories as PUFA. Studies have suggested that a subset of patients with pre-existing cardiovascular disease also benefit from a moderate dose of fish oil (up to one gram per day); however, in those same studies people with stable angina and with no heart disease at all, fish oil actually increased their risk of heart attack.

Check back here for a future post on what the research has to say about using omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) in the treatment of heart disease.

Make sure to visit Chris Masterjohn’s website, where you can purchase the excellent full report for $15. It’s a worthwhile investment, in my opinion, if you want to get the straight scoop about EFAs and their role in our diet.

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