Can Vitamin D Deficiency Lead to Prostate Cancer?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on June 14, 2016Written by Annette McDermott

Is there a connection?

The prostate is a walnut-sized gland in men that produces semen. Prostate cancer happens when cancer cells in the prostate grow uncontrollably. This leads to symptoms such as difficulty urinating, pelvic pain, and difficulty ejaculating. Vitamin D, also called the sunshine vitamin, is an essential vitamin best known for keeping bones healthy. Research shows vitamin D deficiency may be linked to prostate cancer. With this in mind, some researchers have explored whether vitamin D can slow or prevent prostate cancer.

What the research says

According to the National Cancer Institute, researchers began exploring the link between vitamin D and cancer after they realized cancer was less common among people who lived in southern latitudes with high sun exposure. Since then, several studies have investigated whether vitamin D deficiency causes cancer.

Results of a 2014 study suggest vitamin D deficiency may be a risk factor for prostate cancer. Researchers found that African-American men with vitamin D deficiency had an increased chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Both African-American and European American men who were severely vitamin D deficient had a higher Gleason grade and tumor stage. Doctors use the Gleason grade is used to determine how similar cancerous prostate tissue cells are to normal prostate tissue cells. The higher the Gleason grade, the more aggressive the cancer is likely to be.

Research on this connection is still ongoing.

Other risk factors for prostate cancer

It’s unclear whether vitamin D deficiency is a definitive risk factor for prostate cancer.

Established risk factors exist. You may have an increased risk if you:

  • are over age 50
  • are obese
  • are an African-American man or a Caribbean man of African ancestry
  • live in North America, northwestern Europe, the Caribbean islands, or Australia
  • have a father or brother with prostate cancer
  • inherited the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations
  • have a poor diet
  • smoke
  • have been exposed to chemicals such as Agent Orange

Having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean that you’ll get prostate cancer. Talk to your doctor about your risk to determine if prostate screening is right for you.

Find out more: Prostate cancer symptoms »

Screening for and diagnosing prostate cancer

Some doctors implement routine screens for prostate cancer after you’re 50 years old. The digital rectal exam (DRE) and a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test are two initial tests that help your doctor diagnose prostate cancer.

During a DRE, your doctor will insert their finger into your rectum to check the size, shape, and texture of your prostate.

Your doctor will likely perform a PSA blood test during the same appointment. This test checks the level of PSA in your bloodstream. The higher the PSA level, the more likely it is that you have a problem with your prostate.

If your rectal exam or PSA tests are abnormal, your doctor may order an ultrasound or a prostate biopsy to assess whether you have prostate cancer.

Can Vitamin D supplements treat prostate cancer?

Although some research shows that vitamin D slows prostate cancer growth, safety concerns exist. High doses of vitamin D may cause hypercalcemia. This occurs when you have too much calcium in your blood. Too much vitamin D may also worsen some pre-existing conditions.

A less toxic form of vitamin D may be a treatment option, but more research is necessary to prove it’s effective and safe. As a result, vitamin D isn’t an established treatment for prostate cancer at this time.

Check out: The benefits of vitamin D »

Other treatments for prostate cancer

Early-stage prostate cancer may not require treatment. Instead, your doctor may use a watch-and-wait approach. This means they’ll regularly do rectal exams and test your PSA levels to look for changes in your prostate.

If your prostate cancer is more advanced or progressing, your doctor may suggest more aggressive treatments. This may include:

  • internal or external radiation therapy to kill cancer cells
  • hormone therapy to stop your body from making testosterone, which is a hormone that feeds prostate cancer cells
  • surgical removal of the testicles to stop your body from making testosterone
  • surgery to remove your prostate
  • cryoablation to freeze prostate tissue and kill cancer cells
  • chemotherapy to kill cancer cells
  • immunotherapy to help your body fight off cancer cells

Outlook

If you receive a prostate cancer diagnosis, your outlook depends on the cancer stage and your overall health. Slow-growing and early-stage cancers may never need treatment, especially if you’re an older man. Overall, your outlook is generally good.

According to the American Cancer Society, the relative survival rates for all stages of prostate cancer are:

  • a 100 percent five-year survival rate
  • a 98 percent ten-year survival rate
  • a 95 percent fifteen-year survival rate

These rates compare men with prostate cancer to men in the overall population. Take the five-year survival rate, for example. Men who have this cancer are about 100 percent as likely as men without this cancer to live for at least five years after diagnosis on average.

People with localized cancer or cancer that has spread to nearby areas have a five-year relative survival rate of 100 percent. People with distant-stage cancers that have spread to other organs have a five-year relative survival rate of 28 percent.

Reducing your risk of prostate cancer

No preventive measures exist that guarantee against getting prostate cancer. Because vitamin D deficiency may increase your risk of prostate cancer, getting adequate vitamin D is a logical preventive measure. The best way to do this is controversial. Because ultraviolet rays from the sun trigger your body to produce vitamin D, some doctors believe sunlight exposure is the easiest way to get vitamin D. However, your risk of developing skin cancer may increase of you get too much sun exposure.

Some doctors recommend only baring your skin to direct sunlight each day for about half the time it would take for your skin to turn pink to prevent overexposure to sunlight. This is usually about ten minutes. The American Academy of Dermatology disagrees. They state on their website that the safest way to get vitamin D is through supplements or foods. Adults up to age 70 should get 600 international units (IUs) of vitamin D daily adults over 70 should get 800 IUs.

You can take other steps to reduce your prostate cancer risk and your overall cancer risk. This includes:

  • eating a healthy, low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • eating more plant-based fats, such as olive oil, nuts, and seeds
  • eating more fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and tuna
  • limiting how much dairy you consume
  • losing weight if you’re overweight or obese
  • stopping smoking

If you think your vitamin D levels are low, talk to your doctor about checking them. They can advise you on the best way to bring them back to normal.

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