Vitamin D Supplements for Increasing Aging Muscle Strength

We have known for more than 400 years that muscle weakness is a common presenting symptom of vitamin D deficiency. Bones aren’t the only organs that respond to vitamin D—muscles do, too. However, as we age, our muscles lose vitamin D receptors, perhaps helping to explain the loss in muscle strength as we age. Indeed, vitamin D status does appear to predict the decline in physical performance as we get older, with lower vitamin D levels linked to poorer performance. As I discuss in my video in my video Should Vitamin D Supplements Be Taken to Prevent Falls in the Elderly?, maybe the low vitamin D doesn’t lead to weakness. Rather, maybe the weakness leads to low vitamin D. Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin, so being too weak to run around outside could explain the correlation with lower levels. To see if it’s cause and effect, you have to put it to the test.

As you can see at 1:01 in my video, about a dozen randomized controlled trials have tested vitamin D supplements versus sugar pills. After putting them all together, we can see that older men and women taking vitamin D get significant protection from falls, especially among those who had started out with relatively low levels. This has led the conservative U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the official prevention guideline setting body, and the American Geriatric Society to “recommend vitamin D supplementation for persons who are at high risk of falls.”

We’re not quite sure of the mechanism, though. Randomized controlled trials have found that vitamin D boosts global muscle strength, particularly in the quads, which are important for fall prevention, though vitamin D supplements have also been shown to improve balance. So, it may also be a neurological effect or even a cognitive effect. We’ve known for about 20 years that older men and women who stop walking when a conversation starts are at particularly high risk of falling. Over a six-month timeframe, few who could walk and talk at the same time would go on to fall, but 80 percent of those who stopped walking when a conversation was initiated ended up falling, as you can see at 2:14 in my video.

Other high-risk groups who should supplement with vitamin D include those who have already fallen once, are unsteady, or are on a variety of heart, brain, and blood pressure drugs that can increase fall risk. There’s also a test called “Get-Up-and-Go,” which anyone can do at home. Time how long it takes you “to get up from an armchair, walk 10 feet, turn around, walk back, and sit down.” If it takes you longer than ten seconds, you may be at high risk.

So, how much vitamin D should you take? As you can see at 3:00 in my video, it seems we should take at least 700 to 1,000 units a day. The American Geriatric Society (AGS) recommends a total of 4,000 IU a day, though, based on the rationale that this should get about 90 percent of people up to the target vitamin D blood level of 75 nanomoles per liter. Although 1,000 IU should be enough for the majority of people, 51 percent, the AGS recommends 4,000 IU to capture 92 percent of the population. That way, you don’t have to routinely test levels, since 4,000 IU will get most people up to the target level and “is considerably below the proposed upper tolerable intake of 10,000 IU/d.” The AGS does not recommend periodic mega-doses.

Despite the AGS’s recommendation, because it’s hard to get patients to comply with pills, why not just give people one megadose, like 500,000 units, once a year, perhaps when they come in for their flu shot? That way, every year, you can at least guarantee an annual spike in vitamin D levels that lasts a few months, as you can see at 4:00 in my video. It’s unnatural but certainly convenient, for the doctor at least. The problem is that it actually increases fall risk, a 30 percent increase in falls in those first three months of the spike. Similar results were found in other mega-dose trials. It may be a matter of too much of a good thing. See, “vitamin D may improve physical performance, reduce chronic pain, and improve mood” so much that people start moving around more and, thereby, increase fall risk. When you give people a whopping dose of vitamin D, they get a burst in physical, mental, and social functioning, and it may take time for their motor control to catch up to their improved muscle function. It would be like giving someone a sports car when they’ve been used to driving a beater. You’ve got to take it slow.

It’s possible, too, that such unnaturally high doses may actually damage the muscles. The evidence the researchers cite in support is a meat industry study showing you can improve the tenderness of steaks by feeding cattle a few million units of vitamin D. The concern is that such high doses may be over-tenderizing our own muscles, as well. Higher vitamin D levels are associated with a progressive drop in fracture risk, but too much vitamin D may be harmful, as you can see at 5:29 in my video.

The bottom line is that vitamin D supplementation appears to help, but the strongest and most consistent evidence for prevention of serious falls is exercise. If you compare the two, taking vitamin D may lower your fall risk compared to placebo, but strength and balance training with or without vitamin D may be even more powerful, as you can see at 5:41 in my video.


Other studies in which vitamin D supplements have been put to the test in randomized placebo-controlled studies, effectively proving—or disproving—their efficacy, are featured in videos such as:

That brings up a number of important questions, which I answer in these videos:

Unfortunately, most supplements are useless—or worse. Here are some additional videos on supplements I’ve produced that may be of interest to you:

For more on the benefits of exercise, see Longer Life Within Walking Distance and How Much Should You Exercise?

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Should We Increase Our Protein Intake After Age 65?

A study that purported to show that diets high in meat, eggs, and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking supposedly suggested that “[p]eople under 65 who eat a lot of meat, eggs, and dairy are four times as likely to die from cancer or diabetes.” But if you look at the actual study, you’ll see that’s simply not true: Those eating a lot of animal protein didn’t have four times more risk of dying from diabetes—they had 73 times the risk. Even those in the moderate protein group, who got 10 to 19 percent of calories from protein, had about 23 times the risk of dying of diabetes compared to those consuming the recommended amount of protein, which comes out to be about 6 to 10 percent of calories from protein, around 50 grams a day.

So, the so-called low protein intake is actually the recommended protein intake, associated with a major reduction in cancer and overall mortality in middle age, under age 65, but not necessarily in older populations. When it comes to diabetes deaths, lower overall protein intake is associated with a longer life at all ages. However, for cancer, it seems to flip around age 65. I discuss this in my video Increasing Protein Intake After Age 65.

“These results suggest that low protein intake during middle age followed by moderate to high protein consumption in old adults may optimize healthspan and longevity.” Some have suggested that the standard daily allowance for protein, which is 0.8 grams of daily protein for every healthy kilogram of body weight, may be fine for most, but perhaps older people require more. The study upon which the recommended daily allowance (RDA) was based indicated that, though there was a suggestion that the “elderly may have a somewhat higher requirement, there is not enough evidence to make different recommendations.” The definitive study was published in 2008 and found no difference in protein requirements between young and old. The same RDA should be adequate for the elderly. However, adequate intake is not necessarily optimal intake. The protein requirement “studies have not addressed the possibility that protein intake well above the RDA could prove beneficial,” or so suggests a member of the Whey Protein Advisory Panel for the National Dairy Council and a consultant for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

A study followed sedentary individuals over the age of 65 for 12 years and found they lose about one percent of their muscle mass every year. If you force people to lie in bed for days at a time, anyone would lose muscle mass, but older adults on bedrest may lose muscle mass six times faster than young people also on bedrest. So, it’s use it or lose it for everyone, but the elderly appear to lose muscle mass faster, so they better use it. The good news is that in contrast to the 12-year U.S. study, a similar study in Japan found that the “[a]ge-related decreases in muscle mass were trivial.” Why the difference? It turns out that in the Japanese study, “the participants were informed about the results of their muscle strength, [so] they often tried to improve it by training before the next examination.” This was especially true among the men , who got so competitive their muscle mass increased with age, which shows that the loss of muscle mass with age is not inevitable—you just have to put in some effort. And, research reveals that adding protein doesn’t seem to help. Indeed, adding more egg whites to the diet didn’t influence the muscle responses to resistance training, and that was based on studies funded by the American Egg Board itself. Even the National Dairy Council couldn’t spin it: Evidently, strength “training-induced improvements in body composition, muscle strength and size, and physical functioning are not enhanced when older people…increase their protein intake by either increasing the ingestion of higher-protein foods or consuming protein-enriched nutritional supplements.”

Is there anything we can do diet-wise to protect our aging muscles? Eat vegetables. Consuming recommended levels of vegetables was associated with basically cutting in half the odds of low muscle mass. Why? “[T]he alkalizing effects of vegetables may neutralize the mild metabolic acidosis” that occurs with age, when that little extra acid in our body facilitates the breakdown of muscle. I’ve discussed before how “[m]uscle wasting appears to be an adaptive response to acidosis.” (See my video Testing Your Diet with Pee and Purple Cabbage for more on this.) We appear to get a chronic low-grade acidosis with advancing age because our kidney function starts to decline and because we may be eating an acid-promoting diet, which means a diet high in fish, pork, chicken, and cheese, and low in fruits and vegetables. Beans and other legumes are the only major sources of protein that are alkaline instead of acid-forming. And indeed, a more plant-based diet—that is, a more alkaline diet—was found to be positively associated with muscle mass in women aged 18 to 79.

So, if we are going to increase our protein consumption after age 65, it would preferably be plant-based proteins to protect us from frailty. No matter how old we are, a diet that emphasizes plant-based nutrition “is likely to maximize health benefits in all age groups.”


What was that about a study that purported to show that diets high in meat, eggs, and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking? See my video Animal Protein Compared to Cigarette Smoking.

Protein is so misunderstood. For more on the optimal amount of protein, see Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein? and The Great Protein Fiasco.

Interested in learning more about the optimal source of protein? See:

What about the rumors that plant protein is incomplete? See The Protein Combining Myth.

For information on buffering the acid in our blood, see Testing Your Diet with Pee and Purple Cabbage.

And, for more on acid/base balance, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: