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Why your heart needs vitamin D

Lesley Dobson / 06 April 2016

Vitamin D3 is becoming famous for its vital role in keeping our hearts healthier. Learn more about the latest research findings.

Sources of vitamin D
Vitamin D is important for our overall health.

We’ve known for some time that vitamin D is important for our overall health, now new studies are showing the role that this vitamin has when it comes to our hearts.

Related: Learn more about how vitamin D affects your health

A new study looked at how vitamin D3 affected people with heart failure.  The results showed that that taking this vitamin every day improved heart function for those in the study.

“This is a significant breakthrough for patients. It is the first evidence that vitamin D3 can improve heart function of people with heart muscle weakness – known as heart failure. These findings could make a significant difference to the care of heart failure patients,” said Dr Klaus Witte, from the University of Leeds School of Medicine, and Consultant Cardiologist at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, who led the study, known as Vindicate.

The study involved over 160 patients from Leeds. The patients were already having treatment for heart failure with beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors and pacemakers, all of which have been proved to work.

All of those taking part in the study took either a vitamin D3 tablet or a placebo (a fake pill) for a year. None of the pills contained calcium, as this can cause problems for people with heart failure.

Researchers checked on how the participants’ hearts were working – and whether they were improving - by using cardiac ultrasound (known as an echocardiogram). This scans your heart using high frequency sound waves, and can give clear images of the different parts of your heart, such as the chambers, valves and muscles.

Echocardiograms can measure the amount of blood pumped out of your heart each time it beats. This measurement is known as ejection fraction. In a healthy person this will normally be between 60% and 70%. However, the measurement in people with heart failure is often considerably lower. The average ejection fracture among those enrolled in this study was 26%.

During the course of the study the ejection fraction of the 80 people who had been taking vitamin D tablets, went up from 26% to 34%. There was no improvement in those who had been taking the placebo pill.

At the moment, some patients with heart failure are fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). This recognizes irregular heart rhythms, and can shock the heart to make it beat normally again. The results of this study may mean that some heart disease patients may be able to take vitamin D3 daily, rather than having an ICD.

“ICDs are expensive and involve an operation,” said Dr Witte. “If we can avoid an ICD implant in just a few patients, then that is a boost to patients and the NHS as a whole.”

Related: Learn more about cardiovascular disease with our guide

Why we all need vitamin D

Vitamin D (D3 is the one usually prescribed), is important to our health in a number of ways.

As well as aiding our cardiovascular and lung health; vitamin D

  • helps to keep our teeth and bones healthy
  • helps to control insulin levels, and so helps manage diabetes
  • is also important for a healthy brain and nervous system, and immune system

Why do we need to take Vitamin D3 pills?

We get most of our vitamin D when we have direct sunlight on our skin for a short while. This means about 10 to 15 minutes for people with light skin. You need to take care not to burn, though, as this will damage your skin, and may increase your risk of skin cancer.

Related: Don’t take risks with the sun

If we have a poor summer, with little sunshine, or you rarely go outside, or have darker skin, you are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency. Being 65 years old or more can mean that you are more likely to be vitamin D deficient, because as we grow older we don’t make as much vitamin D3 after being in sunlight as we did when we were younger. Talk to your GP about whether you should be taking vitamin D3 pills.

Two other recent studies into heart health have produced interesting findings. The studies were carried out at the Intermountain Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, and led by Heidi May, a cardiovascular epidemiologist at the Institute.

One study looked at the vitamin D levels of 4,200 people aged 52-67. About 25% of these people had diabetes and about 70% had coronary artery disease.

The researchers looked at their levels of total vitamin D and bioavailable vitamin D. (Bioavailable vitamin D means that the vitamin D is in the bloodstream but has not attached to any proteins surrounding it.)

By analysing the results, the team found that their ability to accurately predict cardiac events (eg. heart attacks) that may cause damage to the heart muscle was greatest when they measured both types of vitamin D.

People with low levels of both these types of vitamin D had the highest risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure compared to people who had high levels of both types of vitamin D

The other study found that making the choice to have treatment to help you recover from depression, and increasing your levels of vitamin D, may improve the health of your heart.

By studying a registry of more than 7,500 people, researchers found that effective treatment for people with depression can lower their risk of heart damage so that it is the same level as someone who has never had depression.

“Our study shows that prompt, effective treatment of depression appears to improve the risk of poor heart health,” said Dr May of the Intermountain Center Heart Institute.

Related: The facts about antidepressants

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.