Nearly a third of American adults have high cholesterol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But less than half of them are getting the medical treatment they need to lower the amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, in their blood.
Cholesterol itself is not a bad thing. Your body makes cholesterol and circulates it through your bloodstream. But some forms of cholesterol help the body’s healthy function. One form of cholesterol, called LDL, can actually put you at increased risk for coronary heart disease and stroke.
If lowering cholesterol was as simple as getting some sunshine and absorbing vitamin D, everyone would do it. So what is the link between the “sunshine vitamin” and cholesterol?
Vitamin D serves many purposes within the body, and you can get it from several different sources. The main function of vitamin D is to promote calcium absorption in your body.
You can get vitamin D through your diet and by getting out in the sun, as long as you don’t have sunscreen on. Sunscreens (especially SPF 8 or higher) block the skin’s absorption of the vitamin.
In both cases, the vitamin undergoes several changes within the body before it’s put to use. From there, vitamin D can help:
- keep your bones healthy
- improve cardiovascular function
- keep your lungs and airways healthy
- boost muscle function
- your body fight infections
- protect against cancer
Vitamin D is necessary for your health. When you don’t get enough, you have a deficiency. This can lead to brittle bones, as well as rickets in children. Some research has even tied it to depression, high blood pressure, cancer, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and high cholesterol.
Cholesterol is another necessary substance in the human body. But too much of it can be a bad thing. There are two main types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).
HDL is commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol, and you want to keep HDL levels above 60 milligrams/dL. LDL, on the other hand, is known as “bad” cholesterol, which is the type of cholesterol that can clot your arteries and increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. You should keep your LDL levels below 100 milligrams/dL.
There is conflicting information when it comes to the link between cholesterol and vitamin D. Population studies show that people with lower vitamin D levels are more likely to have high cholesterol, although this does not prove a “cause and effect” relationship.
One 2012 study found that vitamin D supplements have no cholesterol-lowering effects, at least in the short term. In fact, the researchers found that the supplements were actually associated with an increase in LDL.
However, 2014 research found that taking calcium and vitamin D supplements together improved cholesterol levels in postmenopausal overweight or obese women.
The verdict, according to the National Institutes of Health, is that there is insufficient evidence to determine any relationship between your vitamin D intake and your cholesterol levels. But with the host of benefits that vitamin D provides to those that use it, there is still no deterrent in using vitamin D as part of your healthy lifestyle.
According to the Mayo Clinic, vitamin D is safe in doses up to 1,000 micrograms daily.
There are some foods that contain vitamin D. Salmon, tuna, and mackerel are good sources of naturally occurring vitamin D. Trace amounts of vitamin D are found in dairy products and egg yolks.
Almost all American milk is fortified with synthetic vitamin D, making dairy products a good source of vitamin D. Some cereals are also fortified with vitamin D. Check your food labels to see how much vitamin D you are already getting through your diet before using supplements of the vitamin.
Most people get at least some vitamin D through exposure to the sun. Researchers suggest that 30 to 50 minutes outside, three times a week, will give an individual the ideal amount of sun exposure. This is a bit tricky, because applying sunscreen to the skin can prevent vitamin D from being absorbed into the bloodstream.
However, extended time outside without sunscreen can damage your skin and result in skin cancer and other side effects. Get some sun exposure for the benefit of vitamin D, but take care to apply sunscreen after an hour to prevent skin damage.
There are two main forms of dietary supplement vitamin D. They are D-2 and D-3. These supplements have been found to have very similar effects. Many multivitamins contain one or the other. Liquid drops and standalone capsules can also be purchased if you wish to take a dietary supplement that contains only vitamin D.
The more we find out about vitamin D, the more we learn of its benefits and necessity in a healthy lifestyle.
Other health conditions that may benefit from vitamin D include:
- dental and oral hygiene
- certain cancers
- kidney disease
- clinical depression
- autoimmune diseases
In addition to these benefits, vitamin D boosts lung and muscle function, helps the body to fight infections, and contributes to bone health.
Though it is very rare to experience negative side effects from vitamin D, case studies exist where it has occurred. Vitamin D may affect blood sugar levels, so those with diabetes or hypoglycemia should use caution.
A condition called hypercalcemia can result from too much vitamin D intake. Hypercalcemia occurs when there is too much calcium in a person’s bloodstream. Constipation, kidney stones, and stomach cramps can all be symptoms of hypercalcemia. As with any supplement, keep a close eye on your vitamin D dosage and seek medical advice whenever you aren’t sure about something.
The cholesterol-lowering drug cholestyramine can prevent vitamin D from being absorbed. If you are on cholestyramine in any form, talk to your doctor about vitamin D supplements.
- Vitamin D is associated with bone health and improved cardiovascular function.
- Recent research has shown that taking calcium and vitamin D supplements together improved cholesterol levels in postmenopausal overweight or obese women.
- Vitamin D may affect blood sugar levels, so those with diabetes or hypoglycemia should use caution.
- A condition called hypercalcemia can result from too much vitamin D.
Regardless of the effects on cholesterol, vitamin D plays an important part in keeping you healthy. You can boost vitamin D levels by spending some time in the sun, eating foods that are fortified with vitamin D, or taking vitamin D supplements.
If you have high cholesterol, talk to your doctor about strategies for lowering it.