According to a paper published in The American College of Sports Medicine, vitamin D may give American athletes an advantage in the 2012 Olympics.
The paper, “Athletic Performance and Vitamin D,” says vitamin D—which improves reaction time, muscle strength, speed and endurance—may give Americans the same edge that Russian and German athletes received in the 1950s and 1980s, when they used sunlamps to stimulate vitamin D production to increase performance and reduce injuries.
The paper also mentions the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Many athletes trained in Mexico to acclimate to the high altitude and weather—and it just so happens that many world records were set and Americans won more medals, especially in outdoor sports, during those games.
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Vitamin D (actually a hormone), is an essential fat-soluble hormone required for the health of the bones, muscles, heart and blood vessels, nervous, immune and other systems of the body. Given that many of these systems are critical for athletic performance, the adequacy of vitamin D status is relevant for Olympic athletes.
Sources & requirements: The majority (~ 90%) of vitamin D is derived from direct sunlight (cannot be through windows, sunscreens or clothes) when the sun is at least 40 degrees above the horizon. Thus at latitudes above 35 degrees, there is a “vitamin D winter” when none of us can make enough vitamin D from the sun, and we rely on stored vitamin D banked during the warmer months. The amount of sunlight needed is modest – in the range of 10 to 45 minutes per day, and thus should not pose a significant risk of skin cancer in most people. This range varies due to factors such as darkness of the skin, older age, air pollution and many other factors that reduce the ability to make Vitamin D from sunlight. For example, for people with medium-light skin who gradually tan but sometimes burn (Skin Type 3), 15-30 minutes of sunlight most days is probably adequate. Only a small proportion comes from dietary sources such as oily fish and fortified dairy products, and these should not solely be relied on to satisfy the body’s total requirement.
Vitamin D deficiency is common in athletes. Deficiency is associated with osteoporosis (thinning of bones), stress fractures, muscle weakness, falls, poor coordination, depression and fatigue, as well as many other problems. More research is required to confirm that optimizing Vitamin D levels improves performance. (Cannell, J. J., et. al. Athletic Performance and Vitamin D. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 41, No. 5, pp. 1102–1110, 2009).
Vitamin D status can be assessed with a blood test for 25 (OH) Vitamin D level. Normal is ~ 30 – 60 ng/ml.
Prevention: Taking 1000 to 2000 units daily of Vitamin D3 in the colder months will help maintain stores.
Deficiency is treated with higher doses, e.g. 50,000 units oral vitamin D3 weekly for 8–16 weeks. (Modern nutrition in health and disease/senior editor, Maurice E. Shils; associate editors, Moshe Shike…et al..—10th ed. Chapter on Vitamin D)
Discussion question: What other vitamins may be necessary for athletic success in the Olympic Games?
Evidence that Vitamin D improves athletic choice reaction time, muscle strength, speed, and endurance may provide an American Olympic advantage in 2012 much like the Russian and German athletes domination in the Olympics for 30 years from the 1950s to the mid 1980s. Those elite athletes performances were linked to a training technique in which the athletes may have been irradiated with Vitamin D-producing UVB radiation. The American College of Sports Medicine published a paper Athletic Performance and Vitamin D that outlines such evidence.
Controversy surrounding upping the Vitamin D intake is paralleled to "doping." However, most athletes, professional or domestic, of the day are deficient in Vitamin D and upping the intake of the vitamin would not be considered an athletic unfairness, but rather maintaining a healthy vitality potentially preventing "stress factors, and other athletic injuries." Those doctors and trainers that do not treat such may be faltered with medical malpractice and hindering the athlete to reach his/her optimal potential as outlined below.
Co-authors of this article include Professor Timothy Taft, the team physician for the NCAA basketball champions, the UNC Tar Heels, and Professor John Anderson of the UNC School of Nutrition.
Indeed, in reading the early German literature, it seems the athletic benefits of UV radiation were widely known by the 1930s, at least in Germany: ''It is a well-known fact that physical performance can be increased through ultra-violet irradiation. In 1927, a heated argument arose after the decision by the German Swimmers' Association to use the sunlamp, as an artificial aid, as it may constitute an athletic unfairness, doping, so to speak.
In 1952, Spellerberg reported on the effects of an extensive program of irradiation of athletes training at the Sports College of Cologne-including many elite athletes-with a central sunlamp. They reported a convincing effect on athletic performance and a significant reduction in chronic pain due to sports injuries. Improved athletic performance with irradiation was so convincing that Spellerberg notified the National German and International Olympic Committee.
Few athletes live and train in a sun-rich environment, thus few have natural 25(OH)D levels, with the exception of equatorial athletes, such as the runners of Kenya. Another possible exception was the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where athletes had to arrive early to acclimatize to the 7400-ft altitude. Because UVB penetration of the atmosphere is higher at high altitudes, because Mexico City is relatively close to the equator, and because of the summer season, ambient UVB irradiation from sunlight would have been intense during the 1968 summer games and should have rapidly increased 25(OH)D levels of any athlete acclimatizing outdoors. Many new world records were set that summer, and the Americans, perhaps unexpectedly, won more gold and total medals than either the Russians or East Germans. Although most experts attribute the impressive number of world records to decreased ambient air pressure, vitamin D may also have contributed. For example, the Americans dominated in outdoor sports, winning 42 of their 45 gold medals in outdoor sports, whereas the Russians won most their gold medals (18 of 29) in indoor sports. Both the number of new world records, almost entirely in outdoor sports, and the percentage improvement in outdoor world records, for example, Bob Beamon added 21 inches to the long jump (Fig. 6), are consistent with the theory that vitamin D improves athletic performance.
Further controversy may arise as activated Vitamin D is a steroid hormone, in exactly the same manner that testosterone is. The paper concludes that:
Because activated vitamin D is a steroid hormone, questions may arise if use of its precursor, vitamin D, constitutes an unfair advantage, doping, so to speak, as the Germans noted in 1940. However, unlike testosterone or growth hormone, vitamin D deficiency is probably common among athletes.
Furthermore, untreated vitamin D deficiency is associated, not only with stress fractures and other athletic injuries, it is also associated with numerous serious illnesses and is a risk factor for early death. Withholding vitamin D in vitamin D-deficient athletes seems to violate most rules of modern medical ethics and may expose the sports medicine physician to needless future liability. Although science may or may not find performance enhancing effects of vitamin D in the future, good medical practice in the present always supersedes performance enhancing theories awaiting future research. Vitamin D deficiency may be quite common in athletes. Stress fractures, chronic musculoskeletal pain, viral respiratory tract infections, and several chronic diseases are associated with vitamin D deficiency. Those caring for athletes have a responsibility to promptly diagnose and adequately treat vitamin D deficiency.
For comments or copies of the paper, contact the lead author, John Cannell, MD. Dr. Cannell will be speaking at the American College of Sports Medicine in Seattle May 27, 2009.