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To Your Good Health: Vitamin D and Weight

Dear Dr. Roach: Is there any connection between extremely low vitamin D-3 level (mine was 15) and weight retention? I recently caught the tail end of some doctor’s show on TV and I counted back:

Summer of 2010, I started losing weight. I was swimming a lot for exercise, and it kept coming off. By fall I was wearing “vintage” clothing I’d never discarded. I’ve settled in at 130 (down from 170).

In May 2010, my D-3 had tested at 15. I was shocked: I already had a tan and was taking 1,000 IU daily. But I had been listless, useless, and just thought it was my age (then 85). It took more than six months to get to 51, sometimes taking as much as 50,000 IU three times a week. — S.L.

Answer: Some aspects of vitamin D remain controversial; others are not. It is generally accepted that adequate calcium and vitamin D are essential for daily health. It is also true that there is a lot of vitamin D deficiency in this country — how many are deficient depends on how strictly you define “deficiency,” but anywhere from 10 percent to 75 percent has been quoted. It’s also clear that replacing deficient vitamin D can improve strength and energy levels.

What isn’t clear is whether everybody should be taking vitamin D, or should be tested for it. I recommend testing or vitamin D supplementation if there is a risk factor for deficiency; these include older age, darker skin, staying indoors and living north of Atlanta or Los Angeles. That’s a lot of people.

It’s also not clear if vitamin D helps people lose weight. Some studies have said yes, but it’s not completely conclusive. I have to say I’ve never seen your degree of weight loss from vitamin D supplementation, and I am reassured by your feeling good with lots of energy. But there are medical conditions that cause weight loss (excess thyroid comes to mind) that it would be prudent to look for.

Dear Dr. Roach: I live in a senior adult park. I have noted what appears to be an increase in pancreatic cancer among close friends. None of them was aware of the problem until he or she was given the bad news and the short time left to live. Please tell me what early signs might indicate a problem in order to get treatment. I am going on 87 years — healthy, so far. — K.K.

Answer: The pancreas, which makes enzymes for digestion and also makes insulin, sits deep in the abdomen, where any growth is difficult to feel. Unfortunately, the early signs of pancreatic cancer — nausea, abdominal discomfort, poor appetite — are vague and can be confused with many other conditions. By the time definitive symptoms like jaundice show up, it is usually too late.

I wish I had better news to give you, but that is one reason why pancreatic cancer is so feared, along with very limited effectiveness of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation.

On the good side, a young American teenager has recently made a discovery that may improve our ability to diagnose this condition early, as I mentioned in a recent column.

Dr. Roach regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but will incorporate them in the column whenever possible. Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu or write to P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.