How the 'Sun Vitamin' Might Help Stroke Patients

Vitamin D in higher levels in stroke patients tied to better recovery and less brain damage

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Too much sun can be damaging to skin health, but a little may be just what the doctor ordered for those at risk of a stroke.

Stroke patients with higher levels of vitamin D had less damage and recovered more quickly than those with lower levels of the vitamin, a new study found.

Vitamin D is found in some foods, but the body also makes it when it is exposed to the sun. Some people take vitamin D supplements in pill form.

Doctors may advise some patients to take vitamin D supplements, said lead study author Nils Henninger, MD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

“However, supplementation has to be accompanied by a healthy life style (diet, exercise, no smoking, moderate alcohol) and attention to other risk factors,” Dr. Henninger told dailyRx News.

The authors of this study called for more research on vitamin D's effect on stroke risk.

Dr. Henninger and colleagues studied nearly 100 stroke patients in a US hospital and assessed their vitamin D levels.

Strokes occur when blood flow to the brain is cut off, usually by a blood clot blocking a blood vessel. This can result in the death of some brain tissue. The severity of the stroke depends on where it occurs in the brain and how long it lasts. Risk factors for stroke include being older than 55, female, or black and having a family history of stroke or having had a heart attack.

Past research has suggested that vitamin D might prevent damage to the major blood vessels to the brain, brain stem and upper spinal cord.

Patients with the lowest blood levels of vitamin D (less than 30 nanograms per milliliter, or ng/ml) had twice as much dead brain tissue as a result of their strokes as patients whose vitamin D levels were normal, these researchers found.

Normal vitamin D levels are between 30 and 100 ng/ml, Dr. Henninger said. For each 10 ng/ml reduction in vitamin D a stroke victim had, the chance for healthy recovery in the three months following the stroke decreased by almost half. This was regardless of the patient’s age or how severe the stroke appeared to be at first.

Mark Mincolla, PhD, author of "Whole Health: A Holistic Approach to Healing for the 21st Century," told dailyRx News that a report recently published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that 85 percent of Americans were deficient in vitamin D.

“Age, obesity, sunscreen, poor diet and ill health are among the main reasons for vitamin deficiency," he said.

Dr. Mincolla said he often recommends vitamin D supplements in the winter months, when there is less natural light. Still, he said, the best way to get vitamin D is the natural way.

“The very best way to obtain the vitamin is to absorb 15 minutes of sunlight, without sunblock, through the skin daily,” he said.

Dr. Henninger was wary of the sun and its potential damage.

“Staying in the sun too much has its own risks and will likely not help get achieve significantly higher levels," he said. "So if you want to enjoy the sun do it — but moderately and use sunscreen."

And while he said he would not recommend supplements for people who are not at high risk for stroke, Dr. Henninger said he took supplements himself because he found out his vitamin D level was low.

Dr. Henninger and team presented their findings Feb. 11 at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference in Nashville, TN. Research presented at conferences may not have been peer-reviewed.

The authors disclosed no funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
February 4, 2015
Last Updated:
February 14, 2015