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Can Vitamin D3 Heal Autoimmune Diseases?

A major—far more than the standard recommended—dose of vitamin D3 could be one of the keys to treating the ever-skyrocketing incidence of autoimmune disease in this country, says Southern California-based Dr. Steven Gundry. Gundry, a renowned cardiologist, has spent the last fifteen years studying the human microbiome and helping patients with autoimmunity (read about his fascinating transition here), and found that his autoimmune patients were almost always vitamin D deficient. High levels of vitamin D3, he says, help heal the gut issues he believes are the root cause of autoimmune disorders and other diseases as well. (For a primer on how vitamin D behaves—like a hormone in the body—see this previous goop piece.) Below, Gundry shares the surprising discoveries he’s made that have caused him to overturn what he learned about vitamin D in med school, and that underlie the high levels of vitamin D3 he recommends.

A Q&A with Steven Gundry, M.D.

Q

Why do you recommend that people with an autoimmune disease take more vitamin D?

A

I am convinced that all autoimmune disease begins and ends in the gut. Our gut wall is the same surface area as a tennis court! And the lining of our gut is only one cell thick. These cells are all locked arm in arm (like the kid’s game Red Rover). Once that gut wall is penetrated by lectins in our food, NSAIDs like Ibuprofen or Naprosyn, or more than a couple of glasses of wine, it is the job of gut stem cells to rapidly grow and seal the gaps. But these stem cells need vitamin D to grow.

The patients who come to see me with autoimmune diseases who haven’t gotten better after going gluten-free or following other like-minded advice from their practitioners, all have very low levels of vitamin D. And most of them have to take large amounts of the supplement to get their levels to budge into the normal range.

Q

Is there a connection between vitamin D and all kinds of autoimmunity, or a particular disease—and why?

A

Because vitamin D is a hormone that activates a huge number of human genes (now known to be up to 2,000 different genes, or as vitamin D expert Dr. Michael Holick estimates, about 8 percent of our entire genome), its broad-reaching effects are only now being discovered. Studies show that men with prostate cancer and women with breast cancer have very low levels of vitamin D. Dementia and memory loss are directly associated with low levels of vitamin D, as are diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Studies (conducted by myself and others) have shown that vitamin D supplementation impacts the outcome of all these diseases. Indeed, vitamin D even has cancer-cell suppression properties. That’s why I routinely run my cancer patients’ vitamin D levels around 110-120 ng/ml.

Q

What sources of vitamin D do you recommend?

A

Vitamin D3 is readily available as 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 IUs in tiny gel caps, and is also available in drops. My experience with patients is that the gel caps work the best, as people forget the drops, or miscount them. (Vitamin D3 is the right form—not vitamin D2.)

The problem with trying to get all of your vitamin D from food is that you’d have to eat wild salmon daily to get about 1,000 IUs; farmed-raised salmon has virtually none.

And while sunlight exposure is a great idea, realistically, if it’s snowing/raining in Seattle where you live, it’s not going to happen. No one is going to sunbathe everyday. Plus, for half the year, the sun is too low in the sky. Even in my practice in Southern California, 80 percent of our new patients are vitamin D deficient. In sunny California! Why? Largely because our use of sunscreens has caused untoward damage to our collective health, including plummeting our levels of vitamin D. [Read about this in Dr. Gundry’s book, The Plant Paradox.]

So: Take your vitamin D supplement—it’s cheap and miraculous.

Q

Why is there so much conflicting information around vitamin D?

A

First, there’s a lasting myth around it: Vitamin D is not a vitamin at all, but a hormone, which acts on multiple receptor sites in our bodies. Normally, we convert ultraviolet rays striking our skin into the hormone vitamin D, which is further converted to its active compound in our liver and kidneys.

Many well-meaning physicians, including myself previously, have under-prescribed vitamin D. We were taught that vitamin D is toxic at high levels, above 120 ng/ml—toxicity that supposedly includes neuropathy (nerve paralysis). But when I began my Restorative Medicine practice in 2002, I was routinely seeing patients who were taking what I considered at the time to be massive doses of vitamin D3 daily, had serum vitamin D levels of 270 ng/ml (“normal” is 100 ng/ml or less), and were walking and talking and clearly not suffering from toxicity at all. I learned from these patients.

The importance of vitamin D was underscored by groundbreaking research done by Boston University Medical Center’s Michael Holick, M.D., Ph.D.. Dr. Holick’s work was initially pooh-poohed, and even vilified by colleagues—he was forced to step down from his position as professor of dermatology at BU for advocating for daily exposure to sunlight (he has since been reinstated). Holick’s work has revealed that there is no evidence of vitamin D toxicity when taking 10,000 IUs of vitamin D3 daily for six months, even with blood levels of 200 ng/ml.

“Why supplement with vitamin D? Simply this: it affects the activity of about 2,000 different genes, it affects your mood, it affects your brain health, and it guards against autoimmune diseases and cancer.”

I have a principle in my office: I will not give anyone a supplement or dietary advice that I haven’t tried on myself. So for the past ten years, I have run my vitamin D levels at/above 120 ng/ml. When I heard that you could get rid of the flu or the common cold with 150,000 IUs of D3 a day for three days in a row (a lot of vitamin D3), I tried it. It worked for me—without any negative side effects—and has many other times since for me, my patients, and family. (Moreover, controlled trials of daily vitamin D administration to patients in nursing homes showed less flu and viral illnesses in the patients, while the nurses and staff who cared for them—who did not take the vitamin D—suffered more illness!) [See here for a new study on vitamin D as an effective treatment for colds and flus.]

Why supplement with vitamin D? Simply this: it affects the activity of about 2,000 different genes, it affects your mood, it affects your brain health, and it guards against autoimmune diseases and cancer.

Q

What constitutes a deficient vs. healthy vs. toxic level?

A

I have measured serum vitamin D in thousands of patients, and have yet to see vitamin D toxicity—even with many of my patients purposely running their levels above 120 ng/ml (as I do).

To err on the side of caution, though, unless you have cancer or an autoimmune disease, I recommend you aim for levels of 70-100 ng/ml.

“What the FDA was looking for then was the minimum amount of a vitamin that you needed to take to prevent a vitamin deficiency. In vitamin D’s case, this was to prevent rickets—and the minimum amount is ridiculously low.”

Let me be absolutely clear: the “normal” threshold level of 30 ng/ml is dangerously low. Here’s why: When guidelines of vitamin levels first came out in the early 1920’s, they were developed based on the blood levels of about twenty college students from NYC, which were selected as representing normal. What the FDA was looking for then was the minimum amount of a vitamin that you needed to take to prevent a vitamin deficiency. In vitamin D’s case, this was to prevent rickets—and the minimum amount is ridiculously low, about 400 IU’s of D3 a day. What wasn’t investigated until Dr. Holick’s work was the levels needed to achieve maximal health. So, although the official guidelines say 30-100 ng/ml is the “normal” level, most of us working in this field do not see improvements in many health parameters until vitamin D levels of 70-110 ng/ml are reached.

Q

To be at your recommended level, how much vitamin D do we need to get?

A

My average patient usually does well supplementing with 5,000 IUs a day of vitamin D3. A child or small woman can often do okay on 2,000-4,000 IUs a day. But it may surprise readers that some people, particularly with autoimmune diseases, may require upwards of 40,000 IUs a day initially to help seal their leaky gut. But please do this under the supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner.

Dr. Gundry is the director of the International Heart & Lung Institute in Palm Springs, California, and the founder/director of the Center for Restorative Medicine in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. He is the author of Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution: Turn Off the Genes That Are Killing You and Your Waistline and Drop the Weight for Good and The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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