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Studies indicate Vitamin D and calcium may affect colon cancer

May 01, 1986|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

LAGUNA BEACH — Epidemiologists from UC San Diego recently revealed that Vitamin D and the mineral calcium may have more to do with cancer of the colon than does fiber or any other elements. And eating foods rich in calcium and Vitamin D may be the best step to prevent colorectal cancer, the second most deadly cancer in the United States.

Speaking to food writers at a recent nutrition news conference here, Cedric Garland, assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Medicine, UC San Diego, said that clues to the effects of calcium and Vitamin D in the diet were traced to epidemiological surveys showing that death rates from colon cancer in the United States are highest in populations least exposed to natural light.

The most sunlight in the United States is found in southern California, Arizona and New Mexico, where, according to Garland, rates of colon cancer are the lowest overall. The mortality rate from colon cancer in the northern half of the country is double that of the southern half. New Hampshire has nearly three times the mortality rate for colorectal cancer as the southern states. "Sunlight actually striking the Earth is a better predictor of the colon cancer rate than is latitude. And we all know that sunlight creates Vitamin D in people," Garland said.

Similar epidemiological investigation of the worldwide picture based on the link between sunlight and colon cancer revealed that the lowest rates of colon cancer in the world occurred in the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Honduras, Costa Rica and Martinique, which are close to the equator. The farther away from the equator, the higher the risk of colon cancer. "People from Scotland or the Scandinavian countries were at very high risk," Garland said.

Japan the Exception

Only Japan, which is in the same latitude as San Francisco, confused the theory. Japan has less than a third of the colon cancer death rate as does San Francisco, where risk is high relative to Southern California cities.

Garland explained the discrepancy: "Japan is a maritime country and the people have always eaten Vitamin D-rich fish. Even today, most of the protein in the Japanese diet comes from fish--many more times than the proportion of our protein that comes from fish. This aspect of the Japanese diet was a clue that suggested to us that the common link in living in near-equatorial regions and being Japanese was Vitamin D."

In 1980, in the International Journal of Epidemiology, the epidemiologists revealed their theory that Vitamin D from the sun was preventing colon cancer in much of the world. "We also proposed that Vitamin D from the diet was helping to prevent it where the diet contained a reasonable amount of Vitamin D.

"Vitamin D, we theorized, was acting in its role as a hormone to cause absorption of calcium. The calcium, we proposed, was reducing the rate of turnover of the cells lining the colon," Garland said. "And this, in turn, was reducing the vulnerability of those cells to cancer-causing agents because the cells that are turning over are the ones that can be attacked by the cancer causers. Cells that are in a quiescent state, that are not turning over, are very resistant to carcinogens. In the absence of Vitamin D and the absence of calcium, the cells start to turn over extremely quickly. When they do that, any carcinogen that happens to be nearby can tear them apart and induce a cancer."

The scientists theorized that the more intense exposure to sunlight and subsequent increased production of Vitamin D in the body was the key to the lower risk for colon cancer.

It was on this basis that the scientists suggested that exposure to sunlight might help reduce the risk of colon cancer by increasing the levels of Vitamin D, calcium-binding protein and biologically active calcium.

These ecological findings led to the study in which Garland and his team investigated whether dietary Vitamin D and calcium were associated by following up a previous study which had been conducted in 1957 and 1958 by Dr. Richard Schedkele at the University of Chicago and Harvard University, detailing food histories of 1,954 workers at a Western Electric Plant near Chicago.

In 1977, a followup was made to determine the health status of the men in the study. Of those men, 49 had developed colorectal cancer.

The 1,954 men were divided into four groups on the basis of outcome after 19 years of diet history. The men with colorectal cancer formed one group, men with other malignancies another, men who died but had no cancer diagnosed formed the third group and men who were alive and free of known cancer at the end of the 19 years formed the fourth group.

Other Factors Ruled Out

The results of the study supported the suggestion that Vitamin D and calcium may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Other dietary factors were ruled out.

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