Vitamin D, dubbed as the “sunshine vitamin,” is naturally produced in the human skin during sun exposure. Heart failure patients, however, are found often deficient in this nutrient even during the summer months.

A five-year study from the University of Leeds in the UK sought to resolve this problem and investigated the potential benefits of heart patients from vitamin D supplements. Findings showed that daily vitamin D3 doses translated to improved heart function with a weakened heart.

In the VINDICATE study involving 163 subjects, those who received vitamin supplements improved their heart pumping action by up to 34 percent, when patients from the placebo group experienced no changes.

Vitamin D deficiency is a common issue worldwide despite the importance of the nutrient for healthy teeth and bones. In the study, participants were age 70 on average and, like people their age, had low vitamin D levels even in the summer.

"They do spend less time outside, but the skin's ability to manufacture vitamin D also gets less effective [with age] and we don't really understand why that is," says lead author Dr. Klaus K. Witte in a BBC report.

Measuring the supplement’s effects on heart failure where the heart is too weak to properly pump blood, the researchers focused on ejection fraction, which is the amount of blood being pumped out of the heart chambers with every beat.

In healthy adults, this action is at 60 to 70 percent, but heart failure patients only have one-quarter of the blood in their heart being pumped out successfully. Supplementation, however, turned the patients’ ejection fraction from 26 percent to 34 percent.

With the results dubbed as “stunning,” the promise of vitamin D pills is now quite high.

“It’s as cheap as chips, has no side effects and a stunning improvement on people already on optimal medical therapy,” explains Witte, who adds that the results are the first of their kind in the last 15 years.

The senior cardiology lecturer at Leeds, however, adds that not all vitamin D supplements are created equal: vitamin D3 – the type made in the skin – is “more reliable and potent” than the synthetic vitamin D2.

As for the relationship, it remains unclear whether vitamin D deficiency is a cause or symptom of heart disease.

“[T]he severity of the deficiency relates to the levels of symptoms, exercise capacity, diuretic requirements, and response to optimal medical therapy,” writes the team, which presented its findings at an American College of Cardiology meeting.

The authors even propose that vitamin D3 supplements could prevent the need for an implantable cardioverter defibrillator device, which is tasked to detect irregular heart rhythm and shock the organ back to normalcy. The device is considered expensive and involves surgery.

The British Heart Foundation, however, called for more extensive trials to assess supplementation and to determine whether the positive changes in cardiac function eventually translates to reduced symptoms and longer patient lives.

Photo: Brian Tomlinson | Flickr

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