Can Vitamins Really Help Prevent Cancer: New evidence is compelling

As physicians many people ask us “What vitamins can I  take in order to help prevent cancer?” This is a tough question and we often shy away from suggesting that taking vitamins is magic bullet to prevent this terrible disease. However, there is more and more evidence to suggest that vitamins and specifically preventing certain key individual vitamin deficiencies can play a role in cancer prevention. As doctors we would be remiss in not telling you that there are many other things one should do to help prevent cancer such as a healthful diet, safe alcohol consumption, regular exercise and of course, recommended screening tests such as mammograms, colonoscopy and prostate screening.

One of the lastest tidbits that caught our attention is the suggestion that Vitamin D may be helpful in protecting against colorectal cancer risk, particularly in those people under the age of 50.  New evidence suggests that Vitamin D can be an inexpensive and effective way to lessen the risk of early onset colorectal cancer (“CRC”) and precursors such as colon polyps.  The study conducted by Harvard-affiliated physicians and researchers looked at 111 incident cases of early onset CRC and noted a significant reduction in risk for those that supplemented 400 IU/day through diet or nutritional supplements.  According to one of the study’s authors, Kimmie Ng, M.D., M.P.H., of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, “We found that total vitamin D intake of 300 IU per day or more – roughly equivalent to three 8 oz. glasses of milk – was associated with an approximately 50% lower risk of developing young-onset colorectal cancer.”  The study, which used data from the Nurses’ Health Study II (“NHS II”), a prospective cohort analysis of nurses aged 25 to 42 years old beginning in 1989, relied on self-reported data of diet and lifestyle factors reported at two years intervals.  While this methodology has its limitations, namely the self-reported nature of the data, it does confirm what has been reported in other studies with randomized clinical controls and laboratory science about the linkages between Vitamin D and CRC.

Further illustrating the connection, the American Cancer Society has published data on its website showing that individuals with Vitamin D deficiencies presented a 31% higher risk of being diagnosed with CRC when they were followed over a 5-year period.  Moreover, this same data shows that the level of risk did not decline for the highest concentration of Vitamin D examined, which means there is no benefit to overdoing it with excessive levels of Vitamin D supplementation.  The publication, Nature, reviewed 7 studies designed with randomized clinical controls encompassing 957 CRC cases and found a 30% reduction in adverse CRC outcomes with Vitamin D supplementation.  A meta-analysis of these RCT studies found a meaningful benefit of supplementation with CRC survival outcomes.  These study findings make sense when you consider how Vitamin D works.  Calcitriol, 1α, 25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (1,25 (OH)2D3), the most active form of vitamin D, is a hormone that binds to a Vitamin D receptor and regulates the expression of a number of genes that regulate growth, differentiation, and survival of cancer cells.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and women and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.  More globally, CRC is responsible for 1.8 million cases and ~860,000 deaths each year across the world.  The National Cancer Institute reports that the rate of early onset CRC has nearly doubled since the 1990s.   If Vitamin D supplementation can benefit diagnosis and outcomes related to CRC, it has significant implications for population health.

We have repeatedly shared that getting sufficient Vitamin D from diet alone is difficult.  This point of view is confirmed by Elena A. Ivanina, DO, director of Neurogastroenterology and Motility at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, who notes that the average intake of vitamin D through diet is only 204 international units (IU) for men and 168 IU for women – significantly below the recommended daily allowance. The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 400 IU for children up to age 12 months, 600 IU for people 1 to 70 years old, and 800 IU for people over age 70.  Beyond diet, we know that many people do not get adequate access to sunlight to prevent deficiencies, and with fears of UV rays, the widespread application of sunscreen is hindering sun absorption.

So what is the take away? How much vitamin D should you take in a supplement.  It turns out that the answer is not the same for everyone. We are all individuals with different vitamin needs. Things such as sun exposure, ethnicity and other conditions influences how much each person should take. A high quality daily vitamin with sufficient levels of Vitamin D may have tremendous benefit for CRC, particularly among younger individuals under 50. Yet, the off-the-shelf multivitamin options may contain Vitamin D, but they may not have sufficient amounts for a particular profile.  Therefore, it is important to go through a medically-backed assessment and learn the dosage of Vitamin D that corresponds with your individual diet, fitness, health, and lifestyle profile.  It is always important to discuss your vitamin needs with your physician and jointly determine if the products that you are taking are the right solution for your overall health.  A personalized vitamin is often a great start to getting baseline essential nutrition that is adapted to your specific needs.  We have long known that Vitamin D has numerous benefits around immunity, bone health, and a range of other symptoms, and now the evidence is mounting that it can help with CRC, a leading cause of cancer mortality that has been growing at a fast rate among younger populations.

Romy Block specializes in Endocrinology and Metabolism and is mother to three active adolescent boys. Arielle Levitan is a Doctor of Internal Medicine with a special interest in Preventive Medicine and Women’s Health.  She is a mother of three teenagers. As professional women with active family lives, they recognize that people often neglect their own health needs and are uncertain about what vitamins to take. Each person is different in her diet, exercise and health history, and will benefit from different nutrients.  After years of advising their patients about the proper vitamins to take,  Drs. Block and Levitan created Vous Vitamin® to provide people everywhere with quality vitamins that are suited to their individual needs. They are authors of the award winning The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health (She Writes Press, 2015). Take your vitamin quiz now to get exactly the right vitamins for your needs.

The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products offered by Vous Vitamin® are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Nothing contained herein is intended to be a diagnosis or constitute medical advice.  The symptoms described in this Blog may be a result of a serious medical condition which requires medical treatment.  You should consult with your doctor if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this Blog and before beginning any vitamin or supplement regimen.





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