Could Vitamin D Help Fight Cancer?

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By: Alex De Alvarado, Peiying Yang, Ph.D., Richard Lee, M.D., and Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D.

vitamin d in sunshineVitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient well known to be essential for the absorption of calcium and maintaining bone health. Health benefits may include improvement of immune function, muscle strength and reducing inflammation. In addition, ongoing research is examining the role of vitamin D in cancer prevention and treatment.

While vitamin D may be obtained through diet, there are few foods that naturally contain adequate amounts. The best sources include the flesh of fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and fish liver oil. Secondary sources include fortified foods such as milk, juices, yogurt, bread and supplements.

The body can also make vitamin D through direct sun exposure, although recommended guidelines have not been established. Researchers have suggested that 5-30 minutes of sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. at least twice a week to the face, arms and legs is sufficient to gain a benefit. Caution should be used during exposure, as increased levels of sun exposure may lead to an increased risk for skin cancers. 

The Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board recommends the following daily intake of Vitamin D depending on age:

•    For 0-50 years, 5mcg or 200 IU
•    For 51-70, 10 mcg or 400 IU
•    For 71+, 15mcg or 600 IU

The current recommendations are regarded by many health professionals as being too low. The new guidelines set to be released later this year will likely recommend a substantially higher level. The U.S. Food and Nutrition Board, as well as the European Union's Scientific Committee on Food, list the upper intake level of Vitamin D at 2,000 IU (the maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects).

The link between vitamin D and cancer
Ecological studies have examined the association between cancer incidence and survival with vitamin D through sun exposure. Findings suggest that individuals living in northern latitudes have an increased risk of cancer as compared to those in southern latitudes where sun exposure is more accessible for production of vitamin D in the body.

Research has shown that vitamin D may have a role in reducing the risk for more than 16 types of cancer including bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal, gallbladder, gastric, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, renal, vulvar cancer, and Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

A large four-year trial involving 1,179 postmenopausal women found vitamin D plus calcium supplementation significantly reduced the all-cancer risk. However, conflicting research such as the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found no association between vitamin D and cancer mortality with the exception of colorectal cancer. It reported a 72% lower risk of colorectal cancer death for those participants in the study with higher vitamin D blood levels, as compared to those with lower blood levels.

In addition to colon cancer, promising research has found correlations between reduced breast cancer risk and vitamin D obtained through both diet and sun exposure (6) (7).

More research is needed to assess the benefits of vitamin D for cancer and other illnesses. The National Institutes of Health is currently sponsoring a major study involving 20,000 participants called the VITamin D and OmegA-3 TriaL, or VITAL, investigating whether dietary supplements of vitamin D (about 2000 IU) or fish oil (about 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids) reduces the risk of developing cancer, heart disease and stroke in those without prior history of these illnesses.

Because vitamin D deficiencies are prevalent in our society, it is recommended that all individuals, with or without cancer, have their vitamin D levels checked and ensure they are maintained at the recommended levels to obtain health benefits.

Further Reading
1.  Office of Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet

2.  Vitamin D deficiency.New England Journal of Medicine

3.  Solar ultraviolet-B exposure and cancer incidence and mortality in the United States, 1993-2000 BMC Cancer 2006

4.   Vitamin D and calcium supplementation reduces cancer risk: Results of a randomized trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2007

5. Prospective study of serum vitamin D and cancer mortality in the United States. JNCI 2007

6.  Vitamin D From Dietary Intake and Sunlight Exposure and the Risk of Hormone-Receptor-Defined Breast Cancer Am J Epidemiol 2008 Aug 27

7.   Vitamin D intake and breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women: the Iowa Women's health study. Cancer Causes Control

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This post was mentioned on Twitter by ValleySleepCtr: RT @focusedonhealth: Could Vitamin D Help Fight Cancer? Read More


Dear Dr. Cohen, I'm a huge fan of your work. My name is Andreia Torres. I'm a dietitian in Brazil. My master degree focused on cronic diseases in poor populations. Nowadays I work at my own office and post frequently at my blog ( Such blog and podcast received prizes of the most useful educational informations for Brazilians searching for health and nutrition. My greatest job is the regular practice of yoga and I really loved to know the videocast Mind-Body-Practices as I fimily believe in a holystic approach for cancer treatment. I would love to spend a week at your center to understand more about all those terapies. Is that kind of intership possible?

I love this article because I often encourage walking safely outside to enjoy the sun with my patients, explaining the benefit of Vit. D. production. Sometimes patients are in the hospital for days without sunlight and it never fails to brighten up their day. But very interesting the information on incidence of cancer and distance living from the equator...something new to talk about!

Have you done any studies with indoor 5000 kelvin(natural sunlight) lamps to determine if they produce Vitamin D?
Dr. Robert Capretto

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