In 2009, teaming up with Professor John Anderson and Professor Timothy Taft (the team physician for the North Carolina Tar Heels), I wrote the first paper on vitamin D and athletic performance in 50 years.
I say 50 years because in the early 1950s, the Russians and East Germans conducted a number of studies using tanning beds to improve athletic performance, finding significant improvement. I reviewed most of these old studies in our 2009 paper. In 1955, one enterprising German researcher substituted oral vitamin D for the tanning beds and found it replicated the effects of tanning beds on athletic performance.
I discovered the Russians and East Germans used tanning beds on their elite athletes from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s (when they stopped due to fear of skin cancer). Are you old enough to remember how the Russians and East Germans dominated international sports between the late 1950s and mid 1980s?
I first got interested in the topic in 2007 when a number of readers wrote me that vitamin D had improved their athletic performance.
Now, a number of new papers are appearing reviewing vitamin D and athletes. Doctors Dana Ogan and Kelly Pritchett, of Central Washington University, wrote the latest review paper on vitamin D and athletes.
After reviewing the topic, they made the following points:
- As we all know, muscle weakness is probably the single most common symptom of simple vitamin D deficiency.
- Because athletes and sports medicine physicians are primarily concerned with performance, the effects of vitamin D on athletes are under current examination by researchers around the world.
- Vitamin D levels in athletes are comparable to those of the general population; however, results depended largely on geographical location and type of sport (indoor vs. outdoor).
- Many athletes report a peak in physical fitness in the summer.
- Vitamin D supplementation in older adults showed improvements in strength and walking distance, certainly a result of improved athletic performance.
- A recent UK study of 61 athletes found 5000 IU/day of vitamin D3 for eight weeks resulted in significant improvements (p = 0.008) in 10-meter sprint times and vertical jump. We covered this finding in a news story.
- The body requires an estimated 5000 IU/day of vitamin D and the high levels of physical activity in athletes may result in even higher physiological demands for vitamin D.
- Achieving optimal 25(OH)D (>40 ng/ml) can reduce the risk of debilitating stress fracture among athletes.
The authors concluded:
“Vitamin D is established as a major factor in preventing stress factors and optimizing bone health, both of which are of great importance to the athlete. Rates of vitamin D insufficiency in athletes vary among studies, but most researchers agree that athletes should be evaluated regarding vitamin D status and given intake recommendations to maintain optimal 25(OH)D levels >40 ng/mL. Not only does vitamin D assist in growth and maintenance of the bone, but it also aids in regulation of electrolyte metabolism, protein synthesis, gene expression, and immune function. These vital functions are essential for all individuals, especially the elite and recreational athlete.”
This paper’s review of vitamin D’s role in injury prevention reminded me of a young athlete who suffered a much publicized compound fracture. On national television in the last NCAA basketball tournament, Kevin Ware of Louisville suffered a compound fracture of his tibia. If you care to watch the injury, you can certainly find a YouTube video of it, though I warn it’s not for the fainthearted (simply YouTube search ‘Kevin Ware’).
It doesn’t make any sense to me how such an injury could occur in a game of basketball. Compound fractures usually occur in things like car accidents, not while we’re doing routine human activities like coming down after jumping. You have to speculate that Kevin’s bones were not healthy, and he may have been severely vitamin D deficient. Forbes magazine speculated just that.