Vitamin D in Human Health and Performance: The Pursuit of Evidence-Based Practice in an Era of Scientific Uncertainty

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Virginia Tech


Background: Calciferol (vitamin D) is an essential nutrient that can be synthesized in the skin upon exposure to ultraviolet-B (UVB) light, or obtained through dietary and supplement sources. Traditionally known for its role in bone metabolism, vitamin D is currently described as a pleiotropic hormone with genomic and non-genomic roles in most body tissues. Clinical practice guidelines related to vitamin D are inconsistent and controversial. The purpose of this dissertation was to describe current patterns of vitamin D-related clinical care in a variety of settings, and to evaluate the impact of vitamin D supplements on the health and performance of collegiate athletes, a group with high prevalence of low vitamin D (LVD).

Methods: This dissertation consists of five studies: 1) a scoping review of the health services literature related to clinical management of vitamin D; 2) a retrospective analysis of clinical care following non-indicated vitamin D testing using electronic health record (EHR) data from a regional health system; 3) a survey study to assess vitamin D-related practices among National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I programs; 4) an open clinical trial to evaluate the efficacy of a specific vitamin D supplement protocol in treating collegiate basketball athletes with LVD; and 5) a randomized, double-blind clinical trial to determine health and performance effects of vitamin D supplements in collegiate swimmers participating in fall season training.

Results: Substantial inconsistency in vitamin D-related care was observed throughout the first three studies. Exponential increases in vitamin D testing and treatment, and associated costs, were identified in the U.S. and several other countries. A high proportion of this care was considered non-indicated (i.e., counter to professional guidelines). A lower rate of non-indicated vitamin D-related services was conducted within the health system we studied, but a cascade of low value services followed non-indicated vitamin D testing. Vitamin D testing was regularly performed by more than 65% of NCAA programs. In basketball athletes, 10 weeks of daily vitamin D3 supplements (5000 or 10,000 IU based on initial vitamin D status) improved serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D], the common biomarker of vitamin D status. In swimmers, a vitamin D supplement protocol (5,000 IU vitamin D3 daily for 12 weeks) was efficacious in attenuating a seasonal decline in 25(OH)D compared with placebo. Swimmers taking vitamin D supplements also showed greater improvements in strength, power, and fat free mass. In both athlete studies, taking vitamin D supplements was associated with higher free testosterone concentration.

Conclusions: The provision of evidence-based care related to vitamin D is complicated by contradictory clinical practice guidelines, resulting in inconsistent and sometimes, non-indicated care. Focused research on specific populations at high-risk for LVD can inform best practices. Our results suggest that taking vitamin D supplements is an efficacious strategy for athletes to improve 25(OH)D, especially when UVB exposure is low, and to enhance strength and power in collegiate swimmers.



Low Value Care, Screening, 25-Hydroxyvitamin D, Supplement, Athlete