Revealed: the pill that prevents cancer

A daily dose of vitamin D could cut the risk of cancers of the breast, colon and ovary by up to a half, a 40-year review of research has found. The evidence for the protective effect of the "sunshine vitamin" is so overwhelming that urgent action must be taken by public health authorities to boost blood levels, say cancer specialists.

A growing body of evidence in recent years has shown that lack of vitamin D may have lethal effects. Heart disease, lung disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis are among the conditions in which it is believed to play a vital role. The vitamin is also essential for bone health and protects against rickets in children and osteoporosis in the elderly.

Vitamin D is made by the action of sunlight on the skin, which accounts for 90 per cent of the body's supply. But the increasing use of sunscreens and the reduced time spent outdoors, especially by children, has contributed to what many scientists believe is an increasing problem of vitamin D deficiency.

After assessing almost every scientific paper published on the link between vitamin D and cancer since the 1960s, US scientists say that a daily dose of 1,000 international units (25 micrograms) is needed to maintain health. "The high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency combined with the discovery of increased risks of certain types of cancer in those who are deficient, suggest that vitamin D deficiency may account for several thousand premature deaths from colon, breast, ovarian and other cancers annually," they say in the online version of the American Journal of Public Health.

The dose they propose of 1,000IU a day is two-and-a-half times the current recommended level in the US. In the UK, there is no official recommended dose but grey skies and short days from October to March mean 60 per cent of the population has inadequate blood levels by the end of winter.

The UK Food Standards Agency maintains that most people should be able to get all the vitamin D they need from their diet and "by getting a little sun". But the vitamin can only be stored in the body for 60 days.

High rates of heart disease in Scotland have been blamed on the weak sunlight and short summers in the north, leading to low levels of vitamin D. Differences in sunlight may also explain the higher rates of heart disease in England compared with southern Europe. Some experts believe the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet may have as much to do with the sun there as with the regional food.

Countries around the world have begun to modify their warnings about the dangers of sunbathing, as a result of the growing research on vitamin D. The Association of Cancer Councils of Australia acknowledged this year for the first time that some exposure to the sun was healthy.

Australia is one of the world's sunniest countries and has among the highest rates of skin cancer. For three decades it has preached sun avoidance with its "slip, slap, slop" campaign to cover up and use sunscreen. But in a statement in March, the association said: "A balance is required between avoiding an increase in the risk of skin cancer and achieving enough ultraviolet radiation exposure to achieve adequate vitamin D levels." Bruce Armstrong, the professor of public health at Sydney University, said: "It is a revolution."

In the latest study, cancer specialists from the University of San Diego, California, led by Professor Cedric Garland, reviewed 63 scientific papers on the link between vitamin D and cancer published between 1966 and 2004. People living in the north-eastern US, where it is less sunny, and African Americans with darker skins were more likely to be deficient, researchers found. They also had higher cancer rates.

The researchers say their finding could explain why black Americans die sooner from cancer than whites, even after allowing for differences in income and access to care.

Professor Garland said: "A preponderance of evidence from the best observational studies... has led to the conclusion that public health action is needed. Primary prevention of these cancers has been largely neglected, but we now have proof that the incidence of colon, breast and ovarian cancer can be reduced dramatically by increasing the public's intake of vitamin D." Obtaining the necessary level of vitamin D from diet alone would be difficult and sun exposure carries a risk of triggering skin cancer. "The easiest and most reliable way of getting the appropriate amount is from food and a daily supplement," they say.

The cost of a vitamin D supplement is about 4p a day. The UK Food Standards Agency said that taking Vitamin D supplements of up to 1,000IU was " unlikely to cause harm".

What it can do

Heart disease

Vitamin D works by lowering insulin resistance, which is one of the major factors leading to heart disease.

Lung disease

Lung tissue undergoes repair and "remodelling" in life and, since vitamin D influences the growth of a variety of cell types, it may play a role in this lung repair process.

Cancers (breast, colon, ovary, prostate)

Vitamin D is believed to play an important role in regulating the production of cells, a control that is missing in cancer. It has a protective effect against certain cancers by preventing overproduction of cells.

Diabetes

In type 1 diabetes the immune system destroys its own cells. Vitamin D is believed to act as an immunosuppressant. Researchers believe it may prevent an overly aggressive response from the immune system.

High blood pressure

Vitamin D is used by the parathyroid glands that sit on the thyroid gland in the neck. These secrete a hormone that regulates the body's calcium levels. Calcium, in turn, helps to regulate blood pressure, although the mechanism is not yet completely understood.

Schizophrenia

The chance of developing schizophrenia could be linked to how sunny it was in the months before birth. A lack of sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency, which scientists believe could alter the growth of a child's brain in the womb.

Multiple sclerosis

Lack of vitamin D leads to limited production of 1.25-dihydroxyvitamin D3, the hormonal form of vitamin D3 which regulates the immune system, creating a risk for MS.

Rickets and osteoporosis

The vitamin strengthens bones, protecting against childhood rickets and osteoporosis in the elderly.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue