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The sun shining through a hazy sky above a tree.

Vitamin D can be produced by the body through exposure to moderate amounts of sunshine between April and September.

A deficiency of 'D' for patients with pain

by Rick Moore

From M, spring 2004

This summer, before winter rolls around again, you may want to recline under the sun a few extra times, roll up your sleeves, and knock back a tall, cool one. A tall, cool glass of milk, that is. Vitamin D to the rescue. Research conducted at the University of Minnesota found that of 150 patients showing "persistent, nonspecific musculoskeletal pain"--meaning vague, sometimes generalized aches and pains--93 percent were deficient in vitamin D. The study suggests that people suffering from chronic pain, which affects as many as one in five people and has associated costs estimated at $50 billion annually, should routinely be screened for vitamin D deficiency. The major biologic function of vitamin D is to maintain normal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus. A number of other interesting findings emerged from the study, according to lead researcher Greg Plotnikoff, professor at the University's Center for Spirituality and Healing. Unlike what doctors are taught in medical school, those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were not the elderly, homebound, or immigrants; they were young adults who were healthy in appearance. And young women with chronic pain, who are likely to be told, "It's all in your head," were at high risk for misdiagnosis and mistreatment, he says. The researchers also discovered that five people in the study had no detectable levels of vitamin D at all. Three were women of childbearing age and another was a man who had undergone unsuccessful back surgery and a number of cardiac interventions before his vitamin D level was even checked. By not considering that very low levels of vitamin D could have caused his symptoms, Plotnikoff says the treatment may have unnecessarily cost the system hundreds of thousands of dollars. Vitamin D can be readily obtained through fortified milk and other dietary sources like cod liver oil, and also by exposure to moderate amounts of sunshine. The only hitch is, for those of us stuck in northern latitudes, the sun can only produce vitamin D in our bodies between April and September. There are physical and cultural concerns, as well, both for ingesting dairy products and exposing skin to sun for vitamin D. The study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, also points out that it's no longer valid to think that young people in the U.S. automatically get enough vitamin D in their diets. As of 2001, the per capita milk consumption by teenagers provided less than 25 percent of the recommended daily intake of the vitamin. (Adequate intake of vitamin D for adults ranges from 200-600 IU, depending on age.) In the end, it may be that age-old adages hold the key to health across all ages, as Plotnikoff wryly observes: "Our grandparents had it right when they urged us children to eat our vegetables, drink our milk, and go outside and play." That sounds relatively painless.

For more information on vitamin D and dietary supplements, visit www.cc.nih.gov/ccc/supplements/vitd.html.

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