Because of its naturally occurring broad-spectrum anti-infective activity, the sunshine vitamin may do much more than prevent colds and flu.
Trends in nutritional remedies, like those in traditional medicine, come and go. We tend to think ineffective products fade away fast, but that’s often not the case.
Consider vitamin C
Consumers, including those who are naturally-oriented, have been gobbling down synthetic vitamin C for decades, mostly because they believe it will prevent or remedy the common cold, flu and other infections. However, this notion that dietary supplements of vitamin C can do anything for colds has never been demonstrated in scientific studies.
In fact, a recently published review of 72 studies found no significant effect of consuming vitamin C supplementation on the incidence of colds. This is amazing when considering that almost all vitamin C is manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, which spend billions trying to get products to look good scientifically.
Despite this lack of science, the ongoing campaign of selling vitamin C pills is a raving success. Today, annual U.S. sales exceed $220 million, often continuing double-digit growth despite what industry experts say is little genuine innovation of the basic product. And this does not even include multivitamins, powders, drinks and many other products containing vitamin C.
All scientists and clinicians agree, however, that natural vitamin C found in vegetables and fruits is vital for many aspects of health, including improving immune function, which, in turn, can help prevent colds and other infections.
The Cost of Colds
The common cold has a serious economic impact throughout the world. Each year in the U.S., for example, colds lead to 100 million physician visits costing about $8 billion, most being unnecessary, with another $3 billion spent on over-the-counter drugs and $400 million on prescription medicines, none of which treats the cause or prevents cold and only offer symptomatic relief. More than one-third of people who saw a doctor received an antibiotic prescription, which increases the risk for antibiotic resistance. An estimated 200 million school days are missed annually due to colds. Add this to the 300 million workdays missed due to colds, and the total economic impact of cold-related work loss exceeds $20 billion per year.
So when will the “vitamin C for colds” trend cease to exist, and what will take its place? Hopefully very soon, as synthetic vitamin C also comes with the potential of significant health risks. More importantly, there is one nutrient poised to take its place because it’s actually effective, truly natural, and free.
The “Sunshine Vitamin”
Enter the sun and cholecalciferol, commonly but mistakenly referred to as vitamin D. It’s not really a vitamin, but a complex hormone-like chemical produced by the body through sun exposure. The old notion that vitamin D is important for strong bones still holds true, but this does not come close to its powerful impact on health and fitness. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is implicated in most of the diseases of civilization. These include cancer (including skin cancer), heart disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, autism, and, because vitamin D has such a positive effect on the immune system, infections like the common cold and flu.
Because vitamin D targets more than 200 human genes throughout the body, its actions go far beyond what was once thought. One of these genes regulates a compound called cathelicidin, a naturally occurring broad-spectrum antibiotic that is critical for immune defense. This appears to be the reason that low levels of vitamin D are associated with upper respiratory and intestinal infections, influenza, pneumonia, ear infections, Clostridium infections, urinary tract infections, hepatitis B and C, HIV infections, and others. Researchers are now exploring the potential anti-infective aspects of vitamin D, including protection against viruses and other non-bacterial infections.
Vitamin D also has anti-inflammatory actions.
Scientists also propose that vitamin D plays a key role in preventing metabolic syndrome and overfat conditions including obesity. Normally, reduction in vitamin D is the stimulus for the northern hemisphere’s winter hibernation response in people, which consists of an accumulation of fat mass and the induction of a slower winter metabolism — a feature of the metabolic syndrome when it occurs year-round. Those with low D may literally be stuck in a slow metabolic state. And it may be possible to reverse this pattern by improving vitamin D status, which would involve obtaining more than adequate levels of D from the sun from spring through fall.
Here Comes the Sun
The best way to obtain healthy levels of vitamin D is from safe sun exposure. Those with low blood levels usually need the addition of a supplement. Cod liver oil, a source of vitamin D3, is much better absorbed than plant sources (vitamin D2).
The best way to know if you are getting enough vitamin D is to monitor it through a simple blood test available through your doctor.
Common doses of vitamin D in supplements may not correct very low blood levels. Those with a deficiency may require more aggressive treatment along with sun exposure. Such treatment may include injections containing 100,000 or more IUs, which should be assessed by your healthcare professional while monitoring blood levels.
While vitamin D supplements can be toxic in high doses, no such toxicity occurs with regular sun exposure even when large amounts of vitamin D are formed.
The old idea was that, when you feel a cold coming on grab the vitamin C. Instead, getting more vitamin D from healthy sun exposure could prevent that infection from becoming a cold — not to mention the many other health advantages, including disease prevention, performance benefits for athletes and better brain function.