Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations. Of necessity, they observe with a preconceived idea, and when they devise an experiment, they can see, in its results, only a confirmation of their theory. In this way they distort observation and often neglect very important facts because they do not further their aim….

Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine

This article discusses our experience at the one-day Institute of Medicine workshop on vitamin D and calcium. Both of us had an opportunity to make comments before the committee. Here are Paul’s comments and slides and here are Amy’s comments and slides. Note that our 2009 paper in Autoimmunity Reviews[1] discusses some of the science we allude to in further detail.

On the cab ride to the IOM committee meeting on whether to change the dietary reference intake (DRI) of vitamin D, Amy practiced her speech.

The cabbie had been silent for the whole ride, but broke character by talking to us. “So, let me ask you a question,” he said. “Do you take vitamin D?”

“Actually, no, we don’t,” Amy said. Amy explained briefly how our data suggests that the form derived from supplementation is immunosuppressive, meaning that while it may temporarily improve signs and symptoms of disease, we have found it may do so at the cost of long-term health.

We asked him if he took vitamin D. He said yes and explained that a few years back, he had a partially blocked artery. It scared him, so he searched the internet and found that high doses of vitamin D were being recommended for cardiovascular disease. He wasn’t clear about the evidence, but in his words, “I had to do something.”

Which brings us to this point in time. At least in the United States, rates of chronic disease are rising. One recent study predicted that if current trends continue, all Americans will be obese by 2040.[2] Other studies have shown chronic disease is rising at rates faster than could otherwise be explained by an aging population and/or a general increase in population. One recent estimate says that by 2030, 171 million Americans will have a chronic disease. We have to do something, right?

A committee to evaluate the DRI of vitamin D is convened

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is a non-profit organization that was first chartered in 1970. In 2008, IOM appointed a committee of experts whose charge is to reevaluate the DRI of calcium and vitamin D in light of recent research. The committee is expected to produce a report including these recommendations scheduled to be publicly released in May 2010.

An IOM committee with the same purpose last met in 1997 and set the current standard of 400 IU of vitamin D per day for adults. But none of the members of the previous committee are on the current committee despite, collectively, hundreds of MEDLINE citations to their names. Perhaps this suggests that the IOM was trying to exclude scientists who most vocally tout vitamin D’s benefits from the committee.

A great deal has happened since 1997. We learned that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can cause disease (which led to thousands of premature deaths) even while early observational studies seemed to quite erroneously suggest the opposite.[3] Also, evidence-based medicine has come of age.[4]

For those who are not from this planet or from a Western country anyway, it’s hard to really express how enthusiastic the support for vitamin D supplementation is – at least in the popular media. A quick search of Google News for “vitamin D” has led us to conclude that the few articles that allude to vitamin D’s risks are vastly outnumbered by stories repeating the same unchallenged claims about vitamin D’s perceived benefits.

As part of their deliberation process, the IOM committee commissioned a report by the Tufts Evidence-based Practice Center. For this report, the Tufts group used a pre-existing set of criteria to identify only those studies meeting a certain standard of validity. Those studies that made the cut were independently analyzed.

According to the report’s abstract: “The majority of the findings concerning vitamin D, calcium, or a combination of both nutrients on the different health outcomes were inconsistent.” For a variety of diseases, the report repeatedly finds few or no controlled studies showing an association between vitamin D intake and disease.

Interestingly, Dr. Boullion, the sole speaker at the meeting from Europe (Belgium) conceded that he was confident that the European Union would not raise its recommendations regarding vitamin D intake based on vitamin D research to date.

The complete list of presentations including audio and slides is available on the IOM website.

Dr. Barry Kramer sounds an early note of caution

Arguably the most illuminating speech of the day came before lunch. Dr. Barry Kramer, MD, MPH, works in the Office of Disease Prevention, a division of the NIH. His speech was somewhat dryly titled, “Weighing Scientific Evidence” (PDF of slides) but might just as well have been titled, “Hey, wait a second.”

Invoking the work of Leon Gordis, PhD, Dr. Kramer discussed the “Levels of Decision Making,” and how the requisite amount of evidence for a non-conservative (our word) medical decision increases as the number of people it would affect increases. In other words, a person must make decisions for one’s family or even groups of patients with a different standard of evidence than he or she would when making decisions on behalf of the entire nation and possibly the world.

The evidence-based pyramid. Higher levels of the pyramid have higher levels of validity. Note that while Dr. Kramer’s evidence-based pyramid contains a section for ideas and opinions, many evidence-based pyramids make no such provision.

Dr. Kramer argued that some levels of evidence are not sufficient – at least not to make decisions on behalf of millions. The evidence must meet a minimum standard of validity:randomized controlled studies (RCTs), if not double-blind, placebo-controlled RCTs. According to Dr. Kramer, the history of research has shown in the cases of high-dose paclitaxel, encainide/flecainide, torcetrapib, and HRT, of course, that confounding variables have a way of compromising researchers’ most certain conclusions.

A good example of a confounding variable is smoking in alcohol’s relationship with lung cancer. Alcohol consumption is strongly correlated with lung cancer, but only because people who drink are also more likely to smoke. Another commonly cited example: Volvos may be involved in fewer accidents, but that’s probably because people who choose to drive them are generally older and more safety-conscious.

Dr. Kramer said in the case of observational studies with a relative risk of less than two, he could “spit them [confounding variables] out at the rate of one a second.” His slide lists a few obvious confounders for vitamin D studies: health consciousness, health insurance, and access to care.

Dr. Kramer also made what should be an obvious point: surrogate outcomes do not substitute for reductions in mortality or disease. A surrogate outcome is a variable that is a substitute for a “true outcome”, used because it is easier, quicker or cheaper to measure – and the most common one used in vitamin D studies is serum 25-D although bone mineral density, polyps, and PTH levels are also used. But Dr. Kramer said that none of these surrogate outcomes, in his words, “measure up.”

At the end of the speech Dr. Kramer showed the audience a classic Far Side cartoon, explaining, “Especially when you’re dealing with public health issues and millions of people, it pays you not to shoot first, because once you’ve shot, you can’t ask the questions any more, because your credibility is invested in your message. It pays to ask the questions before you shoot.”

We’re not sure if Dr. Barry Kramer heard our five-minute remarks (we never saw him after lunch), but we were, in essence, presenting a set of explanations for how his note of caution could later prove to be well-justified or even prescient.

Researchers affiliated with the Vitamin D Council drive the science on vitamin D

Inarguably the most forceful voices for increasing the DRI of vitamin D come from researchers affiliated with the Vitamin D Council, a California-based organization. At the one-day workshop, a total of seven speakers were affiliated with the Vitamin D Council (only Drs. Hollis and Grant are board members; the remainder are listed as “Vitamin D scientists” on the website), and the balance of other speakers could be fairly characterized as strongly sympathetic to their aims.

Many of the most influential papers on vitamin D are published by this group. We searched the online database, Web of Knowledge, for papers published since 2005 that mention “vitamin D” in the title or abstract, and then we sorted that list by number of times cited. The top four papers on that list are by researchers with the Vitamin D Council – as are a number more in the top twenty.

These researchers have a habit of wholeheartedly agreeing with one another; throughout the day, we would hear at least several times something to the effect, “I agree with my colleague.”

What does a bandwagon look like? If you search for the publications in MEDLINE on vitamin D since 2005 in GoPubMed.com and click on the statistics tab, you see how often Vitamin D Council researchers have co-authored each others’ papers. Below is an annotated screenshot (click for full-size PDF) of the professional collaborations in this relatively close-knit and like-minded group. Researchers affiliated with the Vitamin D Council are in red.

Despite a notable lack of data derived from RCTs, those researchers associated with the Vitamin D Council are pushing the IOM committee to raise the DRI of vitamin D by a huge increase – around 5-6 times the current DRI. To achieve this goal, the Vitamin D Council markets the form of vitamin D derived from food and supplements to the public as a nutrient. What harm can high levels of a nutrient cause, right?

Yet although we’re referring to it as vitamin D in this article so that you know what we are talking about, any molecular biologist would confirm that the two main forms of “vitamin” D are actually powerful secosteroids. The active form of vitamin D, 1,25-D, can also function as a hormone. We suspect that people would be less willing to take extremely large amounts of vitamin D if they were actually told, “We’re giving you high doses of a secosteroid that will adjust your hormonal and immune activity in ways not yet fully understood.”

Yet rather than trying to help the public understand these true properties of “vitamin” D, a number of prominent vitamin D researchers still seem content to refer to it as nothing more than the “sunshine vitamin,” some with impressive consistency.

Did our human ancestors really have extremely high levels of vitamin D?

Late in his talk, Dr. Robert Heaney, a researcher affiliated with the Vitamin D Council, said, “We all agree and it is well-established that humans evolved in equatorial East Africa wearing no clothes.” This assumption is repeatedly invoked to justify supplementation with vitamin D at levels that would leave the average American with a 25-D level similar to that of a present-day farmer who works near the equator.

We’re not sure anyone noticed, but in the next talk, Dr. Michael Holick would undercut this very argument. Dr. Holick said that according to his research, students of African descent need three to five times the exposure to ultraviolet light as Caucasians to “barely raise their blood levels” of 25-D. In short, their skin is “such a good sunscreen.” If ancient man had darkly pigmented skin, (according to a paper by Jablonski et al.,[5] man only evolved lighter skin pigment as he left the tropics) then why would he produce the copious levels of vitamin D referenced by Dr. Heaney?

What about climate change? That ancient man evolved in a consistently sunny and hot environment makes no provision for several extended ice ages, which corresponded to key periods in hominid evolution.[6]

What about skin cancer? Say that early man did not hunt and gather at dusk like so many other animals – that early humans did evolve in an unforested environment with no caves, no clothing, and no thick body hair, whiling away his hours sizzling like a big piece of Paleolithic bacon. Why then would just a few burns before the age of 20 dramatically increase[7] the risk of skin cancer? Did humans evolve to get skin cancer?

To clear up the confusion surrounding this issue, we recently contacted Dr. Peter Bogucki, an archaeologist at Princeton University, who is a leading expert on prehistoric man. We asked him to estimate how much sun prehistoric man actually got.

Dr. Bogucki responded, and I trust he won’t mind us quoting him, “You raise a very good question, but I don’t know that there’s a good answer. All we have is skeletal remains. There’s no elemental isotope to track sun exposure.” In the absence of such a marker, our understanding of how much vitamin D early man actually synthesized is complicated by several factors including climate variability,[8] migration, and changes in skin pigment.

Dr. Richard Potts sums up the evidence or lack thereof for inferring how man evolved from specific environmental scenarios:[9]

The study of human evolution has long sought to explain major adaptations and trends that led to the origin of Homo sapiens. Environmental scenarios have played a pivotal role in this endeavor. They represent statements or, more commonly, assumptions concerning the adaptive context in which key hominin traits emerged. In many cases, however, these scenarios are based on very little if any data about the past settings in which early hominins lived.

Dr. Richard Potts, Director of The Human Origins Program, Smithsonian Institution

At this point, it’s probably safe to say that we simply do not know how much sun early man got.

With this in mind, isn’t it a bit less plausible that, when it comes to the ability of the human body to naturally adjust its vitamin D levels for optimal health, current humans are a complete evolutionary bust and must be given truckloads of pills in order to remain healthy?

Dr. Michael Holick speaks on sunscreen and vitamin D

Dr. Michael Holick is a professor at Boston University, a medical doctor, and may be the world’s leading authority on vitamin D. Since 2005, he has authored or co-authored 59 publications appearing in PubMed on vitamin D (26 more than Dr. William Grant, who is second in that category and a frequent co-author) and he has the distinction of being quoted on vitamin D in nearly every magazine, newspaper, television show and website ever. In his 10-minute statement, Dr. Holick was critical of dermatologists, a group which he singled out for advising the public to avoid creating vitamin D by direct sun exposure. As it happens, Dr. Holick receives large amounts of funding from the UV Foundation, which is in turn sponsored by the Indoor Tanning Association.

Entitled The D-Lightful Vitamin for Health, Dr. Holick remarks sprinkled his speech with a number of pop culture references including mentions of Charlie Brown and Don King. And then there was the clip of Darth Vader telling Luke to come to the Dark Side. It has been a while since we have seen the Star Wars trilogy, but we don’t seem to recall Darth Vader’s evil stemming from his unnecessary prudence.

Dr. Holick went on to claim that sunscreen use blocks 99% of vitamin D production in the skin. This claim is a featured part of his argument, because there has to be a reason why what he views as vitamin D deficiency is so widespread. If there’s evidence to back up this statistic, then our search of the literature cannot find it.

What we did find were three small studies, one of which Dr. Holick authored himself.

One of these studies measured the vitamin D3 (a precursor of 25-D) levels of only eight subjects[10] while another performed no intervention but simply measured the 25-D levels of 20 sunscreen users.[11] The third put only 27 subjects into tanning beds rather than into the sun, which could easily introduce bias.[12] All three are by the same lead author, Dr. Lois Y. Matsuoka.

As it happens, several reviews have refuted the idea that real-world use of sunscreen entirely halts cutaneous production of vitamin D. By real world, we mean people putting sunscreen on themselves for extended periods of time while exposed to the actual sun.

Dr. William L. Scarlett writes in his review, “Several large prospective studieshave shown that vitamin D deficiency does not result from regular sunscreen use.”[13]

A review by Drs. Wolpowitz and Gilchrest states, “There is no evidence that customary sunscreen use causes vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency in otherwise healthy individuals.”[14]

One research team, studying patients with xeroderma pigmentosum, a genetic disorder in which patients are unable to repair damage caused by ultraviolet light, found that vitamin D levels are maintained even when patients practice at least six years of rigorous photoprotection and not supplementing with vitamin D beyond their normal dietary intake. Most importantly, the researchers also concluded that the clinical manifestations of vitamin D “deficiency” were absent.

In a 2007 review, Dr. Melanie Palm concludes real-world people tend not to consistently or repeatedly apply sunscreen.[15] She writes: “Most people’s real-life experience with sunscreen is that despite its application, they still sunburn or tan after casual sun exposure.” Dr. Palm goes on to explain, “SPF [sun protection factor] is a strictly defined and Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-regulated measurement based on applying 2 mg/cm2 of product. Studies have shown that most users apply insufficient amounts of sunscreen to meet this FDA standard, and the true SPF obtained is usually less than 50% of that written on the package.”

Dr. Holick also proudly informed the committee of the manner and amount of his vitamin D intake. If you ask us, this is irrelevant. It’s nice that Dr. Holick believes what he says enough to try it on himself, but this kind of data falls to the very bottom of Dr. Kramer’s evidence-based pyramid – the opinion level that should never be used to guide public health decisions.

In the remainder of his talk, Dr. Holick went on to say that no one living in a latitude north of Atlanta, Georgia can make vitamin D in their skin during the winter months. Based on everything else we have heard, maybe you can understand why we’re a bit dubious of this claim.

It seems that one of the unspoken rules of publishing a study on vitamin D is that you must cite Michael Holick – geez, even we have done it. But in light of the conflicting data related to Dr. Holick’s claims, we have to wonder why the man has been accorded that authority and why more people don’t second-guess some of his more definitive statements.

A concession: vitamin D is not for people with granulomatous disease

From our perspective, one positive statement Dr. Holick made was when he conceded, as actually many of the pro-vitamin D researchers will do, that vitamin D is not for everyone, specifically not for people with granulomatous diseases such as Crohn’s or sarcoidosis.

A granuloma is a ball-like collection of immune cells which forms when the immune system attempts to wall off substances such as bacteria. But it looks like patients with granulomatous diseases are going to have a tough time if Holick and his colleagues succeed in drowning us in vitamin D. Raising the DRI of vitamin D would inevitably mean that vitamin D would be added to another slew of foods.

When Dr. Holick et al. were questioned about the fact that some people have been shown to develop kidney stones after taking extra vitamin D or that people with granulomatous disease could easily ingest excess levels of vitamin D and become significantly more ill, they seemed ambivalent. In their eyes, if a certain number of people are harmed by taking vitamin D, it should not matter, so long as more people benefit. We find this risk-benefit analysis difficult to stomach having seen first-hand the suffering associated with granulomatous diseases.

Dr. Cedric Garland discusses vitamin D and cancer

Another member of the Vitamin D Council, Dr. Cedric Garland, spoke in his remarks about vitamin D and cancer. After his remarks, a committee member, Dr. JoAnn Manson challenged him on his claim that vitamin D is protective against cancer at high levels of intake. She asked him about the Women’s Health Initiative-led randomized controlled study which trended in the opposite direction when it comes to breast cancer among women who start out with high intakes of vitamin D.[16][17]

Dr. Garland brusquely and repeatedly dismissed the cancer study, saying that the dose of vitamin D administered to subjects, 400 IU – which happens to be the current adult DRI – was “not even a placebo.” In other words he believes that 400 IUs of vitamin D has no biological effect whatsoever. Dr. Manson responded, “I don’t buy it.” Actually, neither do we. To put things in perspective, you’d have to consume 20 eggs or four glasses of vitamin D fortified milk a day in order to get 400 IUs of vitamin D.

Interestingly, when you take a look at the five most frequently cited papers on vitamin D published in the last five years, the first four are authored by researchers affiliated with the Vitamin D Council. But study #5[18] derives its conclusion based on data collected by the Women’s Health Initiative, the same research group whose data Dr. Garland suggested should have no implication on the IOM Committee’s decision-making. That other vitamin D researchers are more than inclined to analyze data from the Women’s Health Initiative suggests that, although Garland may seem like he is an expert speaking on behalf of the entire vitamin D community, not all vitamin D researchers share his views.

We have taken the liberty of annotating in red several of Dr. Garland’s slides to make points about the presentation of data especially as it pertains to vitamin D.

Below is Dr. Garland’s slide showing a strong and consistent increase in the rate of breast cancer since 1935, which he used as a general indication for why it is important to significantly increase the amount of vitamin D added to the food supply.

However, as you can see below, it is very easy to take that same data and “show” the opposite – that vitamin D consumption has led to a dramatic increase in breast cancer.

Another example: Dr. Garland didn’t mention this publication in his speech, but in a 2008 study, his group found a significant association between “low UVB irradiance and high incidence rates of type 1 childhood diabetes.”[19]

Data derived in this observational manner could just as readily be used to show something else entirely.

As you can see in this graphic above, there is a strong apparent association between states that get more sun and teenage pregnancy. But does sun exposure actually cause teen pregnancy? We certainly hope not!

Obviously, you can try to control for confounding variables, as Dr. Garland did in his ’08 publication, but so too did researchers who repeatedly concluded that hormone replacement therapy was safe. According to Dr. Kramer: “There were literally scores, if not hundreds, of observational studies that showed almost beyond reasonable doubt that hormone replacement therapy would prolong women’s lives, if it were given routinely.”

In the words of Dr. David Ransohoff (who Dr. Kramer quoted in his talk), observational data are “guilty until proven innocent.”

When discussing vitamin D, Dr. Garland put up another thought-provoking chart on the effect of vitamin D and calcium on the development of kidney stones (derived from the Women’s Health Initiative).

Several things about Dr. Garland’s chart are of interest.

  • Although the y-axis could easily have gone up to only 10%, it goes all the way up to 55%. This visually minimizes the apparent negative treatment effect of calcium and vitamin D and barely impresses on the viewer that if the trend observed in the study is accurate and significant, approximately 1.2 million Americans will develop kidney stones if they continue taking vitamin D and calcium.
  • We probably should not be surprised that on this same slide, Dr. Garland opted to display absolute risk rather than relative risk.Absolute risk is a measure of what portion of a population have a disease in a given time period. Relative risk is that percentage increase divided by the risk in a placebo group, e.g. (2.5%–2.1%)/2.1%. In this case, patients who take calcium and vitamin D have an increased absolute risk of 0.4% of developing kidney stones but a relative risk of 19% of getting kidney stones. So by showing absolute risk, Dr. Garland again downplays the sheer number of people who could be negatively affected by taking extra vitamin D and calcium.

Dr. Reinhold Vieth speaks about safety

In his slot, Dr. Reinhold Vieth was asked to speak on whether there was a safe upper limit/level of vitamin D. As he has stated in at least one paper, his answer was no. In his words, “A prolonged intake of 250 mug (10,000 IU)/d of vitamin D(3) is likely to pose no risk of adverse effects in almost all individuals in the general population.”[20]

Dr. Vieth’s comments echoed those of Dr. Garland, who had earlier concluded, “The benefit/risk ratio for 2,000 IU/day of vitamin D is infinite.”

Obviously, we disagree. We take no comfort in the fact that a person, as demonstrated in case reports, can accidentally take several thousand times the recommended dose of vitamin D and still seem healthy after only several months – which is the only data Dr. Vieth provided. Our attention is directed towards long-term outcomes, time windows which correspond to the slow growth of chronic bacteria and other pathogens that may play a role in causing chronic disease. Also, the full negative effect of immunosuppressants (recall that we have found that 25-D acts as an immunosuppressant) can often only be noted after decades.

25-D vs. 1,25-D and the long elusive search for biological plausibility

Most of the talks had us scratching our heads, trying to figure out why, when 1,25-D is the biologically active form of vitamin D and the sole vitamin D metabolite able to activate the Vitamin D Receptor (VDR), almost every speaker focused on research and recommendations pertaining to 25-D levels. For a brief discussion of the different forms of vitamin D see my (Paul’s) speech.

One of the points both of us tried to make in our own five minute presentations is that the levels of the different forms of vitamin D are jointly regulated by several feedback mechanisms. This means that if one alters the level of one form of vitamin D, levels of the other vitamin D metabolites will almost certainly shift to accommodate the change.

It seems prudent then, that if a study measures 25-D levels, it should measure 1,25-D levels as well. Without the ability to examine the relationship between the two main vitamin D metabolites, how can a researcher fully understand the spectrum of the changes that occur when vitamin D supplementation takes place? Over a decade ago, even the FDA suggested that “1,25-D should be measured in order to support claims of a drug’s osteoporotic activity.” Yet few researchers seem to have heeded this advice. Thus, we would venture to say that studies absent levels of 1,25-D should at least be regarded with less rigor than those studies that test both metabolites.

At some point in a discussion with the Committee, one of the experts mentioned how 1,25-D is difficult to detect. We hope that doesn’t serve as an excuse for not testing 1,25-D. Since most major laboratories – including Quest Diagnostics – can easily perform the test, we would expect any vitamin D researcher would be able to do so as well. The real reason 1,25-D might be “hard” to test is that the 1,25-D test costs more than the 25-D test. But we’re all trying to do the best possible research… right?

The potential significance of 1,25-D is suggested in a forthcoming study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. In the study, Dr. Greg Blaney of Vancouver, Canada reported on the 25-D and 1,25-D levels of 100 patients with autoimmune disease.

While many of the subjects had very low levels of 25-D, even more of the subjects (approximately 85%) had levels of 1,25-D elevated above the normal range. Under these circumstances can those subjects with low levels of 25-D but elevated levels of 1,25-D truly be considered vitamin D deficient? They are certainly not deficient in the sole form of vitamin D that actually activates the VDR to transcribe approximately 913 genes, TLR2, and the antimicrobial peptides vital to the innate immune response.

When Dr. Heaney was asked to comment on 25-D’s actions by a member of the committee he admitted that he did not know, biologically speaking, how 25-D exerts any of the myriad beneficial effects that he claimed occur when it is elevated. All he could offer was that he knows that 25-D must be present in patients for them to get better.

Is this what passes for biological plausibility among pro-vitamin D researchers?

Later that afternoon, one committee member asked Dr. Cedric Garland, “Do you have a mechanism to explain the outcomes you’re reporting?”

Dr. Garland proceeded to offer his analysis for how supplemental vitamin D, in his words, “eradicates” cancer. Garland pointed to a stack of his papers and asked that it be passed out. When members of the committee seemed hesitant to do so, he went on to explain the details of his model anyway. Dr. Garland shared that he had developed a novel pathogenesis for cancer in which cancer is caused by gaps between cells, which, in simple terms, he believes form as a body becomes vitamin D deficient. This line of inquiry was clearly only in its infancy and had not yet passed muster with cancer researchers. But even if Garland’s model proves to be valid, one would have hoped he would expose it to great scientific scrutiny before using it as the basis for making unequivocal recommendations regarding vitamin D supplementation.

But as Dr. Garland went on to further describe what he believes are vitamin D’s cancer benefits (he was eventually cut off by a member of the committee), he provided a perfect example of the vitamin D expert that we have trouble following. The reason? He used the broad term “vitamin D” when making claims and by doing so, mixed up research that pertains solely to 25-D or 1,25-D. For example, Garland said that vitamin D is able to “upregulate tumor suppressor genes.” Most audience members probably thought he was referring to 25-D since that was the only vitamin D metabolite he ever mentioned. Yet, only 1,25-D is able to activate the Vitamin D Receptor to express Tumor Metastasis Suppressor 1 and other related genes.

Similarly, another talk that we believe should have discussed 1,25-D levels but did not was Dr. Stephanie Atkinson’s remarks on vitamin D in pregnancy. That is because researchers have realized for some time now that 1,25-D is over-expressed during pregnancy.[21] Placental conversion was demonstrated in vitroin 1979,[22] over-expression of 1,25-D in vivo in 1980,[23] and the dysregulated vitamin D metabolism was described in 1981.[24] If 1,25-D becomes elevated during pregnancy, then isn’t it only prudent that studies on vitamin D and pregnancy should measure it and its relationship to 25-D?

We find the relationship between 25-D and 1,25-D important, because it was by observing relationships between the two metabolites that our group was able to realize that in the majority of cases, when a subject’s 25-D level is low, their 1,25-D levels are actually high (AIDS is an exception because HIV completely co-opts the VDR).[25] And it was these relationships that led to our alternate hypothesis for the low levels of 25-D observed in patients with chronic diseases such as cancer. We have found that when 1,25-D is high, the vitamin D feedback pathways naturally downregulate levels of 25-D. This means that what is now viewed as “deficiency” could simply be a result of the chronic disease process. Under such circumstances, allowing people to create extra 25-D by raising the DRI is not only useless but harmful. We believe that our alternative hypothesis at least deserves consideration by the committee, yet are worried that when they are not presented with data on both 25-D and 1,25-D, they will not be able to recognize the pattern that makes our model plausible.

Vitamin D and the evolving definition of autoimmune/inflammatory disease

We also find it problematic that none of the experts who spoke at the meeting seem to be aware that microbial metabolites have a profound effect on the activity of the Vitamin D Receptor (VDR). The US NIH now estimates that 90% of cells in the human body are bacterial in origin while only a mere 10% of cells in the body are truly human.[26] Thus, many microbiologists now believe that humans are best viewed as superorganisms in which a plethora of bacterial gene products can effect the activity of our own receptors and genetic pathways.[27]Indeed, independent research teams have found that Mycobacterium tuberculosis downregulates VDR activity by approximately 3.3 times.[28] ActiveBorellia lowers VDR activity by about a factor of 50 and Epstein-Barr Virus by a factor of around 10.[29] HIV completely shuts down VDR activity. It’s quite likely that other pathogens yet to be fully characterized have also evolved ways to decrease VDR activity because by doing so, they slow important components of the innate immune response that might otherwise render them dead. That the experts who spoke before the committee have failed to factor this knowledge into their study designs suggests that they cannot fully account for the actions of the various vitamin D metabolites in an in vivo environment.

Furthermore, no vitamin D researcher, of whom we are aware, makes provision for research which shows that the current view of autoimmune disease – in which the immune system is believed to attack itself – may be running its course.[30][31][32][33] Many microbiologists now believe that at least some, if not all, of the inflammation that drives the autoimmune disease state is caused by the presence of chronic pathogens.

Inflammation is a clear potential link between infectious agents and chronic diseases.

Siobhán M. O’Connor[31]

With this in mind, the claim by many vitamin D researchers that vitamin D can help patients with autoimmune disease by slowing an “over-active” adaptive immune response no longer jives with an emerging view in the microbiology/immunology community – that both the adaptive and innate immune systems should be kept active in autoimmune disease in order to allow the body to best target disease-causing microbes.

The possible presence of pathogens in autoimmune and other inflammatory disease states such as cancer and atherosclerosis makes our group’s findings on vitamin D’s actions more plausible. When the immune system is fighting a microbe, it continually releases inflammatory molecules in an effort to kill the pathogen.[34] If the pathogen dies, endotoxins[35] and cellular debris are generated. This leads to increased symptoms of malaise on the part of a person who harbors such microbes.

It follows that any substance that slows the innate immune response will decrease this battle between man and microbe, causing the patient to feel better. The more the immune response is slowed, the greater the decrease in inflammation and inflammatory markers. But while such measures can make the patient appear as if they are getting better for years, ultimately the bacteria causing their disease are able to spread much more easily and exacerbate the disease state over the long-term.

Our molecular and clinical data shows that 25-D, like the pathogens we describe above, binds the Vitamin D Receptor and slows its activity.[1] Since the VDR largely controls the innate immune response, increasing 25-D levels could easily display the pattern of immunosuppression described above. This begs the question – is 25-D a miracle curative substance or simply an excellent palliative?

If we are correct and 25-D slows VDR activity then we have found that patients who are chronically ill benefit from decreasing their vitamin D intake. This is because their VDR activity already appears compromised by the pathogens they harbor. Yet this should not be interpreted to mean we think healthy people can’t consume vitamin D. However, our data suggest that healthy people can get the vitamin D they need by eating a well-rounded diet that does not include fortified foods and getting sun exposure similar to that of a person taking measures to avoid an increase in skin cancer risk.

Our speeches and the reaction to them

In our speeches, we raised the possibility that low levels of 25-D are caused by the inflammatory disease process and that taking vitamin D suppresses the immune response.

In total, the two of us spoke for 600 seconds, and we’re not sure we convinced anyone of anything. By all indications, a discussion of molecular mechanisms was outside the committee’s comfort zone. Most would probably say that they are uninterested in software emulations of molecular interactions, no matter how provocative or far-reaching the conclusions they imply. If we had to pin the members of the committee down on it, I think they would say that when it comes to our clinical trial, we needed better controlled data such as the kind we intend to generate as a part of our West China Hospital collaboration. For this reason, we opted for a more measured tone.

During Amy’s speech, a Dr. Holick sighting, seated in the front on the left.

During Paul’s speech, there was some tittering in the audience (not the committee). He saw one prominent researcher, who shall remain nameless, chuckling. For a moment, he thought he had spinach in his teeth or was trailing toilet paper from his shoe, and then he realized that, oh yes, he was telling 50 PhDs and MDs that their conclusions have the potential to be very misguided.

After the day’s business concluded, everyone began to file out. One woman though turned to us and said, “What a bunch of rebels!”

Glad we could liven up the workshop for you, ma’am.

Although during our speeches, we asked people to come by and ask us about our work, only Dr. Tony Norman did. He did not seem convinced, but did invite us to submit an abstract for a poster presentation at an upcoming vitamin D conference in Belgium.

Anticipating what is to come

If you ask most Vitamin D Council researchers, they would say that this is the “end game,” and there is already more than enough evidence to raise the level of vitamin D added to the food supply. During the question and answer sessions, some of these scientists such as Dr. Garland were dismissive of evidence to the contrary. It was as if many were saying, “Look – there is no downside here. It is demonstrably impossible that consumption of vitamin D can cause harm. If we don’t have all the requisite evidence, it doesn’t matter. Lives are at stake!” We suspect that even if the committee decides to maintain current vitamin D levels, there are other ways to convince the public to increase vitamin D intake.

But despite the media’s stampede to promote the “sunshine vitamin,” the evidence is ambiguous and the issue of biological plausibility – not knowing how 25-D exerts its claimed benefit – is troubling as well. Dr. Kramer said that the root of science is the art of thinking hard about how you could be wrong. Is this something the vitamin D research community is actively doing? Looking through everything that was presented throughout the day, how many confounding variables might Dr. Kramer have identified? How many surrogate outcomes could he point to?

It is difficult to anticipate exactly what decision the IOM Committee will arrive at. However, from this perspective, it would be hard to see how the group could raise the dietary reference intake in light of such an equivocal set of conclusions in the Tufts report – in spite of considerable pressure to do so.

Will an IOM committee ever emerge from this climate of consensus and consider research that would cause them to lower the DRI of vitamin D?

Here are a few possibilities:

  • An evolution in the understanding of disease raises new concerns about the risks of using immunosuppressants. The Human Microbiome Project shows that bacteria are not confined to the surfaces of the body, i.e. skin, mouth, gastrointestinal tract, etc. As chronic disease is increasingly characterized as an infection or at least having infectious components, researchers seriously question if reducing the inflammatory response needed to kill chronic pathogens is in a individual’s long-term interest.
  • After continuing to increase vitamin D consumption to historic levels, members of the public and some researchers begin to question the absence of the promised overall drop in rates of disease. In some respects, the decision of the IOM committee is immaterial. All indications are that the vitamin D “experts” are having a great deal of success communicating their message that it’s important to take 4-5 times or more the current DRI of vitamin D. People will take increasing amounts of vitamin D as food manufactures will add increasing amounts to their products. Many of the presenters at the Workshop essentially promised double-digit declines in disease. If this does not materialize, there will be questions. If we are right, this could be the hormone replacement therapy (HRT) saga redux, except with potentially broader ramifications.
  • Well-controlled long-term studies show that vitamin D consumption increases incidence and severity of chronic disease. To most people – probably in excess of 95% of people at the workshop – this is not even a possibility, but the history of HRT use proves such unexpected results can emerge, eventually, from well-controlled studies.

Epilogue: The ride home

After the meeting adjourned, we were approached by a nattily attired man in his thirties, originally from Barcelona. He offered us a ride home to New York. His Mercedes SUV looked quite appealing, so we skipped the bus and took him up on his offer.

On the ride home, this fellow – who told us he had a PhD in oncology – told us he agreed with the sentiment of our remarks and expressed disappointment with the lack of rigor of the science presented. The word he used to describe the majority of presentations was “pseudoscience.” He told us that, based on what he saw, vitamin D was harmful and that it was only a matter of time before the hype surrounding vitamin D would fizzle.

Although we felt validated, we wondered why he had attended the conference in the first place. It turns out that he was an entrepreneur, had just bought the patent for a new formulation of calcium, and wanted the discussion at the IOM workshop to help him decide how much vitamin D to add to his product.

He seemed like a honest and honorable guy until, that is, he let us know that despite his negative view of vitamin D, he intended to add high levels of it to his supplement anyway, so long as the medical community and public viewed it as beneficial. Later on, he said, he planned to strategically remove it “just before the vitamin D bubble bursts.”

Well, isn’t that wonderful? Some reassurance about the people behind products aimed at “improving our health.”

In that vein, we couldn’t help remembering the short speeches delivered by members of the Dairy Council as well as a yeast company, whose goal in speaking before the Committee were simply to urge the Committee that, if more vitamin D is added to the food supply, it should be added to the food they market. This would give these interests the ability to claim more health benefits from their food and, of course, make more money.

In sum, our adventure in the nation’s capital left us with a bad taste in our mouths. We’d like to wash it away but we’re worried that by the time we do so, no drink won’t be fortified with vitamin D.

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