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Vitamin D, also known as calciferol, is essential for strong teeth and bones. There are two major forms of vitamin D: D2 or ergocalciferol and D3 or cholecarciferol. Vitamin D can be synthesized by the body in the presence of sunlight, as opposed to being required in the diet. It is the only vitamin whose biologically active formula is a hormone. It is fat-soluble, and regulates the body's absorption and use of the minerals calcium and phosphorus. Vitamin D is important not only to the maintenance of proper bone density, but to the many calcium-driven neurologic and cellular functions, as well as normal growth and development. It also assists the immune system by playing a part in the production of a type of white blood cell called the monocyte. White blood cells are infection fighters. There are many chemical forms of vitamin D, which have varying amounts of biological activity.
The needed amount of vitamin D is expressed as an Adequate Intake (AI) rather than an Required Daily Amount (RDA). This is due to a difficulty in quantifying the amount of the vitamin that is produced by the body with exposure to sunlight. Instead, the AI estimates the amount needed to be eaten in order to maintain normal function. It is measured in International Units (IU) and there are 40 IU in a microgram (mcg). The AI for vitamin D in the form of cholecarciferol or ergocalciferol for everyone under 50 years of age, including pregnant and
One of the major uses of vitamin D is to prevent and treat osteoporosis. This disease is essentially the result of depleted calcium, but calcium supplements alone will not prevent it since vitamin D is required to properly absorb and utilize calcium. Taking vitamin D without the calcium is also ineffective. Taking both together may actually increase bone density in postmenopausal women, who are most susceptible to bone loss and complications such as fractures.
Osteomalacia and rickets are also effectively prevented and treated through adequate vitamin D supplementation. Osteomalacia refers to the softening of the bones that occurs in adults that are vitamin D deficient. Rickets is the syndrome that affect deficient children, causing bowed legs, joint deformities, and poor growth and development.
Vitamin D also has a part in cancer prevention, at least for colon cancer. A deficiency increases the risk of this type of cancer, but there is no advantage to taking more than the AI level. There may also be a protective effect against breast and prostate cancer, but this is not as well established. Studies are in progress to see if it can help to treat leukemia and lymphoma. The action of at least one chemotherapeutic drug, tamoxifen, appears to be improved with small added doses of vitamin D. Tamoxifen is commonly used to treat ovarian, uterine, and breast cancers.
Many older adults are deficient in vitamin D. This can affect hearing by causing poor function of the small bones in the ear that transmit sound. If this is the cause of the hearing loss, it is possible that supplementation of vitamin D can act to reverse the situation.
Some metabolic diseases are responsive to treatment with specific doses and forms of vitamin D. These include Fanconi syndrome and familial hypophosphatemia, both of which result in low levels of phosphate. For these conditions, the vitamin is given in conjunction with a phosphate supplement to aid in absorption.
A topical form of vitamin D is available, and can be helpful in the treatment of plaque-type psoriasis. It may also be beneficial for those with vitiligo or scleroderma. This cream, in the form of calcitriol, is not thought to affect internal calcium and phosphorus levels. Oral supplements of vitamin D are not effective for psoriasis. The cream is obtainable by prescription only.
Author Info: Judith Turner, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
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