Eat Well to Be Well: Vitamin D sheds ray of hope on prostate cancer research

Men may someday have a new arsenal for fighting prostate cancer – vitamin D.

Nicknamed the “sunshine vitamin” and well-known for preventing the childhood vitamin D deficiency disease of rickets, this fat-soluble micronutrient may also have another significant purpose – either preventing or lowering the rate of death from prostate cancer.

Several recent studies have shown promising results that vitamin D supplements may slow or even reverse the progression of low-grade or less aggressive prostate tumors. A man diagnosed with low-grade prostate cancer may choose to do “active surveillance,” meaning to wait and see if the tumor progresses before doing more invasive treatments of surgery or radiation. Some men will opt to do an elective prostatectomy, which carries its own risks of infection, urinary incontinence, and erectile dysfunction. However, before this procedure can be done, 60 days must elapse for inflammation to subside after the initial biopsy.

Recently, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of Colorado Cancer Center conducted studies giving 4,000 IU of vitamin D supplements each day during the 60-day waiting period to see if it would affect patients’ prostate cancer, compared to a placebo group that did not receive vitamin D supplements.

Preliminary results showed men receiving vitamin D supplements had improvements in their prostate tumors, whereas the tumors in men who didn’t take the supplement either stayed the same or became worse.

Another interesting result of this study was the impressive changes the vitamin D supplement had on reducing inflammation in low-grade prostate cancers. Vitamin D caused changes in the expression levels of cell lipids and proteins, which are involved in inflammation. This is important as cancer is associated with inflammation, particularly in the prostate gland.

Previous research has also shown that when vitamin D supplements were given to men with low-grade prostate cancer for a year, over half of the men had decreases in their Gleason scores (a scale grading aggressiveness of prostate tumors) or even a complete disappearance of their tumor.

It is believed that younger men diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer may also be helped with vitamin D supplements. Prostate tumors found in younger men tend to grow quickly and disturbingly; there has been a six-fold increase of aggressive prostate cancer in younger men over the past 20 years.

“This may be positive news for younger men who are diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer because of risk factors like family history,” said Dr. David Samadi, Chairman of Urology and Chief of Robotic Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “We need to educate them to understand their risk and talk to their physicians about their vitamin D levels. Anything we can do early on in the process of cancer diagnosis or even before is always a good thing. The key is getting men to understand their risk factors before cancer becomes a reality.”

Numerous studies continue to demonstrate vitamin D supplements’ affect on prostate cancer. One study showed that there are receptors on cells that vitamin D can bind to, communicating to the cells on what to do. Prostate tissue has receptors for vitamin D, which once attached may direct the cancerous cells to stop growing or die, thus safeguarding against the progression of prostate cancer. Another study of survival rates in veterans with prostate cancer showed that veterans initially deficient in vitamin D had lower survival rates than men who were not initially deficient in vitamin D.

The link between vitamin D and prostate cancer appears to be growing stronger. Men with higher levels of vitamin D tend to have lower mortality rates and less aggressive prostate tumors.

Dietary intake of vitamin D from food sources does not appear to have as strong of a protective affect against prostate cancer. But studies have shown that prostate cancer rates are higher in areas that get less sunlight and men who are exposed to more sunlight, through their job or other outdoor exposure, either had a reduced risk or were less likely to die from prostate cancer.

Overall, whether you have prostate cancer or not, always consult your physician before taking a dietary supplement.

As Dr. Samadi advises, “Vitamin D is accessible and affordable. More studies need to be done but any potential to reduce the severity of prostate cancer is great news. Taking vitamin D early on, especially if you’re at risk of prostate cancer, could help slow the process, and we already know inflammation plays a major role in the development of prostate cancer. Anything we can do to reduce it is a great step forward.”


Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who is an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, Burlingame, where she teaches Basic Nutrition, and at Butler County Community College, Council Grove, where she teaches Therapeutic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at [email protected].

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