Study: Low vitamin D levels a problem for some skin cancer patients


New research shows people with basal cell nevus syndrome are more likely to have vitamin D deficiency

Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard
18th October 2010 -- Protecting your skin from the sun to help prevent skin cancer may have an unhealthy side effect: vitamin D deficiency.

A new study shows vitamin D deficiency is increasingly common among people with a genetic predisposition to sun-related skin cancers known as basal cell nevus syndrome.

Researchers found that people with basal cell nevus syndrome were three times more likely to have low vitamin D levels than the general population.

“Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with an increased risk of autoimmune disease, fractures, cancer, cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality,” writes researcher Dr Jean Tang, of Stanford University in the US and colleagues in the Archives of Dermatology. “There is increasing concern that sun protection, recommended by dermatologists to prevent further UV damage in populations susceptible to skin cancer, may result in abnormally low levels of [vitamin D], which may have subsequent detrimental effects on health.”

In the study, researchers took periodic blood samples from 41 people with basal cell nevus syndrome over a period of two years. The results show 23 (56%) of the participants had vitamin D deficiency.

Blood levels of vitamin D were lower among those with basal cell nevus syndrome who were overweight and in those who had blood samples taken in winter compared with summer.

Reducing sun exposure

People with basal cell nevus syndrome tend to develop multiple cancerous lesions in early adulthood. As a result, they are advised to take steps to reduce their sun exposure and skin cancer risk by using sunscreen and avoiding the sun during peak hours.

Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, but it is also found in fortified products, butter, eggs, fish liver oils and supplements.

The researchers say it's not surprising to find high levels of vitamin D deficiency in people at risk for skin cancer, but the magnitude of the problem was unexpected. The results suggest vitamin D supplementation may be recommended for people with basal cell nevus syndrome.

The researchers also suggest that further studies are needed to determine the optimal amount of vitamin D supplements needed for preventing deficiency in people in the general population using sunscreen and other methods of sun protection.

In an emailed statement, Dr Jodie Moffat, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, says: “Vitamin D helps keep our bodies, and particularly our bones, healthy. The main source of vitamin D for most people is exposure to sunlight. So it’s not surprising that the people in this study who tended to avoid the sun because of a condition affecting their skin had an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency. But overexposure to the sun is also the main cause of skin cancer, so a balance has to be struck.

“For most people, enjoying the sun safely while taking care not to burn can help to give the benefits of vitamin D without raising the risk of skin cancer. When it comes to sun exposure, little and often is best. People should get to know their own skin to understand how long they can spend outside under different conditions without risking sunburn.”


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