Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that helps regulate levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate, and zinc in the body. Adequate levels are needed for optimal bone, digestive, brain, and overall metabolic health. Low levels of vitamin D have been implicated in cognitive impairment, heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders.
If you’re not getting daily sun exposure without sunscreen, you may not be getting enough sunlight to manufacture adequate vitamin D. According to a 2010 report in the International Journal of Health Sciences, over a billion people around the world are either deficient or insufficient in vitamin D.
And now, a new study presented at the Society for Endocrinology Conference in the United Kingdom points to yet another life-threatening risk of vitamin D insufficiency—bladder cancer.
The Link Between Bladder Cancer and Low Vitamin D
Bladder cancer accounts for 4.6% of all new cancer diagnoses, and is responsible for 2.8% of cancer deaths. Wanting a more comprehensive view of the possible effects low vitamin D levels may have on bladder cancer development, researchers at the University of Warwick and Coventry in the United Kingdom conducted a systemic review of seven studies made up of 112 to 1,125 participants per study. Some studies measured vitamin D levels before a bladder cancer diagnosis, some during treatment, and some at follow-up.
An analysis indicates a pretty definitive link between low vitamin D and bladder cancer: 5 out of the 7 studies showed that the risk of bladder cancer raises significantly when vitamin D levels are low, and that bladder cancer patients with higher levels of vitamin D have better survival and outcomes.
It appears that vitamin D has an effect on transitional epithelial cells that line the bladder. These cells can synthesize enough vitamin D to alert the immune response to the presence of abnormal cells. This information may possibly help the immune system prevent the rise or spread of bladder cancer.
Lead researcher Dr. Rosemary Bland explains: “More clinical studies are required to test this association, but our work suggests that low levels of vitamin D in the blood may prevent the cells within the bladder from stimulating an adequate response to abnormal cells. As vitamin D is cheap and safe, its potential use in cancer prevention is exciting and could potentially impact on the lives of many people.”
Vitamin D and Cancer Prevention
According to the National Cancer Institute, early epidemiologic research suggests a lower rate of certain cancers in areas with more sun exposure, such as southern latitudes. Research shows that vitamin D may be able to inhibit or prevent the development of cancer by reducing cancer cell growth, triggering apoptosis (cancer cell death) and decreasing tumor blood vessel formations. Thus far, research shows that vitamin D exerts a prohibitive effect on colorectal, breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancers.
Getting Enough Vitamin D
If you live in northern latitudes where sun exposure is infrequent or in climates that are so stifling hot you resist stepping outside, you may not be synthesizing enough vitamin D from the sun. Likewise, if you have sun-phobia and regularly cover up with SPF or protective clothing, you probably aren’t getting enough vitamin D.
Spend more time in the sun SPF-free. Not enough time to burn, but enough to get a slight tan so that your skin can soak up some necessary vitamin D. The appropriate time varies according to skin-tone. Those with pale skin may find that 10 minutes of sun exposure is enough, while those with darker skin may be able to spend 30 minutes to an hour exposed to the sun.
Eating vitamin D-rich foods is another way to shore up vitamin D levels, although not as effective as going directly to the source of D—the sun! Egg yolks, fatty fish, fish oil, dairy products, and liver are all high in vitamin D. If you follow a plant-based diet, then you can get vitamin D from mushrooms and fortified vegan cereals and milk.
You can check your vitamin D levels with a 25(OH)D blood test, which you can take at home or in a laboratory. The Vitamin D Council suggests 50 ng/ml as the ideal vitamin D level. If you suspect your vitamin D levels are low, ask your doctor about supplementing with vitamin D in the form of D3 or cholecalciferol, which is the natural form of vitamin D that your body synthesizes from sunlight.