Vitamin D Supplements for Reducing Cancer Mortality

It all started with a famous study entitled “Do sunlight and vitamin D reduce the likelihood of colon cancer?” that was published in 1980. Johns Hopkins University researchers were trying to figure out why states like New Mexico and Arizona have only about half the colon cancer rates of states like New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Could it be because New Mexicans and Arizonans get so much more sun? The researchers proposed that perhaps vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, is a protective factor against colon cancer. Since then, sun exposure has also been associated with lower rates of 14 other types of cancer.

As I discuss in my video Do Vitamin D Supplements Reduce the Risk of Dying from Cancer?, vitamin D may also affect cancer survival. Higher blood levels of vitamin D were associated with lower mortality of patients with colorectal cancer. How much lower? Nearly half the mortality. And, the higher the vitamin D levels, the lower the death rate appeared to fall. This may explain why the survival rate from colon cancer may depend in part “on the season of diagnosis.” The risk of rapid death is lowest if you’re diagnosed in the fall after you’ve spent the summer building up your vitamin D stores. Other risk factors could be seasonal, too. For example, perhaps people are taking advantage of the fall harvest and eating healthier, which might explain lower risk in the autumn. Additionally, “[a]lcohol intake is a risk factor and may be highest in the winter season…” What about physical activity? In the summer, we may be more likely to be outside running around, not only getting more sun, but also getting more exercise, which may itself be protective.

These kinds of studies just provide circumstantial evidence. Establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between colon cancer and vitamin D deficiency using observational studies is challenging because of confounding factors, such as exercise habits—so-called lurking variables. For example, there may be a tight correlation between ice cream sales and drowning deaths, but that doesn’t mean ice cream causes drowning. A more likely explanation is that there is a lurking third variable, like hot weather in summertime, that explains why drowning deaths are highest when ice cream consumption is also at its highest.

This actually happened with hormone replacement therapy. Women taking drugs like Premarin appeared to have 50 percent less risk of heart disease, so doctors prescribed it to women by the millions. But, if we dig a little deeper into the data, we find that, indeed, women taking estrogen had 50 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, but they also had a 50 percent lower risk of dying from accidents and homicide, so it probably wasn’t the drug. The only way to know for sure is to put it to the test in a randomized, clinical trial, where half the women are given the drug and we see what happens. A decade later, such a study was done. Instead of having a 50 percent drop in risk, within a year of being given the hormone pills, heart attack and death rates shot up 50 percent. In retrospect, the lurking variable was likely socioeconomic class. Poor women are less likely to be prescribed hormone replacement therapy and more likely to be murdered and die of heart disease. Because of the lurking variable, a drug we now know to be dangerous had initially appeared to be protective.

Besides lurking variables, there’s also the possibility of reverse causation. Perhaps low vitamin D levels didn’t worsen the cancer. Instead, maybe the cancer worsened the vitamin D levels. This may be unlikely, since tumors don’t appear to directly affect vitamin D levels, but cancer treatment might. Even simple knee surgery can cause vitamin D levels to drop dramatically within hours, thought to be due simply to the inflammatory insult of cutting into someone. So, maybe that could help explain the link between lower vitamin D and lower survival. And, cancer patients may be spending less time running around the beach. So, yes: Higher vitamin D levels are associated with improved survival in colorectal cancer, and the same has been found for breast cancer. In fact, there is about double the risk of breast cancer recurrence and death in women with the lowest vitamin D levels. What’s more, higher vitamin D levels are associated with longer survival with ovarian cancer, as well as having better outcomes for other cancers like lymphoma. But, the bottom-line, as we learned with hormone replacement, is that we have to put it to the test. There weren’t a lot of randomized controlled trials on vitamin D supplements and cancer, however…until now.

We now have a few randomized controlled trials, and vitamin D supplements do indeed appear to reduce the risk of dying from cancer! What dose? Researchers suggest getting blood levels up to at least about 75 nanomoles per liter. These levels are not reached by as many as three-quarters of women with breast cancer nor achieved by a striking 97 percent of colon cancer patients .

Getting up to these kinds of levels—75 or, perhaps even better, 100 nanomoles—might require about 2000 to 4000 IU of vitamin D a day, levels of intake for which there appear to be no credible evidence of harm. Regardless of what the exact level is, the findings of these kinds of studies may have a profound influence on future cancer treatment.


What about just getting sun instead? Be sure to check out my six-part video series:

It’s better, of course, to prevent colon cancer in the first place. See, for example:

For more on that extraordinary story about Premarin and hormone replacement therapy, see How Did Doctors Not Know About the Risks of Hormone Therapy?

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:

Is the Risk of Skin Cancer From Sun Exposure Overblown?

By the turn of the 20th century, rickets, the vitamin D deficiency disease, was rampant, thanks to city life with the shade of buildings and coal soot in the air. The dairy industry jumped at the opportunity to fortify milk with vitamin D, and so did the beer industry. According to one print ad: “Beer is good for you—but Schlitz, with Sunshine Vitamin D, is extra good for you…[so] drink Schlitz regularly—every day.” There are, of course, healthier fortified options, like vitamin D-fortified orange juice, but to reach recommended intake levels, it could take 15 to 20 cups of fortified milk, beer, and/or juice a day. As I discuss in my video The Risks and Benefits of Sensible Sun Exposure, to get those kinds of doses, it really comes down to sun or supplements.

Sunlight supplies 90 to 95 percent of vitamin D for most people. The threat of skin cancer is real, however it’s mostly from chronic excessive sun exposure and sunburns. “There is little evidence that minimal sensible exposure to sunlight will considerably increase the risk of skin cancer”—though why accept any risk when we can get our vitamin D just from supplements?

For the sake of argument, what if there were no supplements available? What if we were just trying to balance the positive and negative effects of sun exposure? On one side, we have entities like the American Academy of Dermatology that recommend that “no one should ever be exposed to direct sunlight without sun protection.” After all, the UV rays in sun are proven carcinogens, responsible for more than half of all Caucasian malignancies, blaming the tanning industry for downplaying the risk.

Even those who accept research dollars from the tanning industry acknowledge that excessive sun exposure can increase skin cancer risk, but argue for moderation, advocating for “sensible sun exposure” and blaming the sunscreen industry for overinflating the risk. However, it’s harder to impugn the motives of the dermatologists, who are essentially arguing against their financial interest since skin cancer is their bread and butter. The concern raised by UV advocates is that “sunphobic propaganda” may do more harm than good, pointing to studies such as this one from Sweden that found that those diagnosed with skin cancer tended to live longer and have less heart attacks and hip fractures. Not surprisingly, the media loved this and ran headlines like “Sunbathers live longer.” Only natural UV exposure was associated with reduced mortality, however; artificial UV exposure, like from tanning beds, was associated with increased mortality. This probably has nothing to do with vitamin D, then. Why then would those who run around outside enough to get skin cancer live longer? Maybe it’s because they’re running around outside. More exercise may explain why they live longer. And here in the United States, more UV exposure was associated with a shorter, not longer, lifespan.

There are modeling studies that suggest that at least 50,000 American cancer deaths may be attributable to low vitamin D levels that could be avoidable with more sunlight exposure that would kill at most 12,000 Americans from skin cancer. So, on balance, the benefits would outweigh the risks—but, again, why accept any risk at all when we can get all the vitamin D we need from supplements? In fact, where did they get those estimates about vitamin D preventing internal cancers? From intervention studies involving giving people vitamin D supplements, not exposing them to UV rays. So, it’s not much of a controversy after all. “In essence, the issue is framed as needing to choose between the lesser of two evils: skin cancer…versus cancer of various internal organs and/or the long list of other ailments” from vitamin D deficiency. The framework ignores the fact that there’s a third way. When we were evolving, we didn’t live long enough to worry about skin cancer, and vitamin “D was not available at the corner store.”

If we just want to look more attractive, how about eating more fruits and vegetables? When high kale models were pitted against high UV models, the golden glow from carotenoid phytonutrients won out, and the same result has been found in Caucasian, Asian, and African American faces. So, may I suggest the produce aisle to get a good healthy tan…gerine?


That’s the gist of what the last 15,950 studies on vitamin D have added to our understanding. Unless something particularly groundbreaking comes out, you can expect the next update in 2021. If you missed the first five videos in this series, see:

I also explore vitamin D as it relates to specific diseases:

The physical attractiveness is from carotenoid deposition in the skin. For more on this, 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:

The Best Source of Vitamin D

If one is going to make an evolutionary argument for what a “natural” vitamin D level may be, how about getting vitamin D in the way nature intended—that is, from the sun instead of supplements? I run through the pros and cons in my video The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons?. Though supplements may only cost about 10 dollars a year, sunlight is free. We never have to worry about getting too much vitamin D from sunlight, since our body has a way to regulate production in the skin, so if we get our D from the sun, we don’t have to trust poorly regulated supplement companies not to mislabel their products. Indeed, only about half the supplement brands that researchers tested came within 10 percent of their labeled amount.

Sunlight may also have benefits beyond vitamin D, such as how our body may use the sun’s near-infra-red rays that penetrate our skin to activate chlorophyll by-products in our bloodstream to make Co-Q10. (See my video How to Regenerate Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) Naturally for more on this.) There’s another way our body appears to use the sun’s rays to maximize the effects of the greens we eat: Within 30 minutes of exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight, we can get a significant drop in blood pressure and improvement in artery function, thanks to a burst of nitric oxide-releasing compounds that flow into our bloodstream. We can even measure the nitric oxide gas coming straight off our skin. Of course, we have to eat greens or beets in the first place, but that combo of greens and sunlight may help explain some of the protection that plant-based eaters experience.

Morning sun exposure may help those with seasonal affective disorder, as well as improve the mood of wheelchair-bound nursing home residents. Previously, I’ve talked about the benefits of avoiding light at night—see my video Melatonin and Breast Cancer if you’d like to know more—but underexposure to daytime sunlight may also affect our melatonin levels, which don’t only regulate our circadian rhythms but may also be helpful in the prevention of cancer and other diseases. Older men and women getting two hours of outside light during the day appear to secrete 13 percent more melatonin at night, though we’re not sure what, if any, clinical significance this has.

The downsides of sun exposure include increased risk of cataracts, a leading cause of vision loss, though this risk can be minimized by wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses. Sunlight also ages our skin. In my The Best Way to Get Vitamin D: Sun, Supplements, or Salons? video, you can see a dramatic photo of a truck driver who spent decades getting more sun on the left side of his face—though his driver’s side window. “The effects of sunlight on the skin are profound, and are estimated to account for up to 90% of visible skin aging”—that is, wrinkles, thickening, and loss of elasticity. Things like sun exposure and smoking can make us look 11 years older. Cosmetic surgery can make us look up to eight years younger, but a healthy lifestyle may work even better. Doctors don’t preach about sun protection for youthful facial looks, though, but because of skin cancer. Medical authorities from the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society, to the Surgeon General warn about excess sun exposure and for good reason, given the millions of skin cancers and thousands of deaths diagnosed every year in the United States alone.

The UV rays in sunlight are considered a complete carcinogen, meaning they can not only initiate cancer, but promote its progression and spread. Melanoma is the scariest, which “makes the rising incidence of melanoma in young women particularly alarming.” This increase has been blamed on the increased usage of tanning salons. Tanning beds and UV rays in general are considered class 1 carcinogens, like processed meat, accounting for as many as three quarters of melanoma cases among young people and six times the risk of melanoma for those who visited tanning salons ten or more times before the age of 30.

The tanning industry is big business, bringing in billions of dollars. There may be more tanning salons than there are Starbucks, and they use those dollars like the tobacco industry: to downplay the risks of their products. Laws are being passed to regulate tanning salons, from complete prohibitions, like in the country of Brazil, to age restrictions for minors. But, unlike tobacco, tanning isn’t addictive. Or is it?

Have you heard of “tanorexia”? Some people tan compulsively and report a so-called tanner’s high. Describing tanning behavior like a substance abuse disorder might seem a little silly—that is, until you stick people in a brain scanner and can show the same kind of reward pathways light up in the brain, thanks to endorphins that are released by our skin when we’re exposed to UV rays. In fact, we can even induce withdrawal-like symptoms by giving tanners opiate-blocking drugs. So, tanning is potentially addictive and dangerous. Harvard researchers suggest that we should “view recreational tanning and opioid drug abuse as engaging in the same biological pathway.” But there’s a reason sun exposure feels good. Sunlight is the primary natural source of vitamin D, and, evolutionarily, it’s more important, in terms of passing along our genes, not to die of rickets in childhood. Unlike natural sunlight, tanning bed lights emit mostly UVA, which is the worst of both worlds: cancer risk with no vitamin D production. The small amount of UVB many tanning beds do emit, however, may be enough to raise vitamin D levels. Is there a way to raise D levels without risking cancer? Yes: vitamin D supplements.


Indeed, we can get some of the benefits of sun exposure without the risks by taking vitamin D supplements. But, for the sake of argument, what if such supplements didn’t exist? Would the benefits of sun exposure outweigh the risks? That’s the subject of my video The Risks and Benefits of Sensible Sun Exposure.

For other videos in this vitamin D series, see:

I also explore Vitamin D as it relates to specific diseases:

Here’s the video about that amazing chlorophyll activation: How to Regenerate Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) Naturally.

What do greens and beets have to do with artery function? Check out some of my latest videos on the wonders of nitrate-rich vegetables:

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: