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Vitamin D and Leukemia: Benefits and Uses

Medically reviewed by Mark Levin, M.D.
Written by Anika Brahmbhatt
Posted on August 2, 2021

If you have leukemia, you may be curious about what impact vitamin D may have on your condition’s progression and your overall health. One MyLeukemiaTeam member wrote, “I take vitamins D and C daily to help my immune system.” Another said, “My doctor told me to take vitamin D.”

Researchers have not yet found a clear connection between vitamin D intake and leukemia symptoms, though some studies indicate potential benefits. In general, though, the nutrient offers several general health benefits, and it’s worthwhile to talk with your doctor about whether you’re getting a sufficient amount of vitamin D in your diet.

What Is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a nutrient that your body needs to make your muscles move, help your nerves send signals, and allow your immune system to fight off bacteria and viruses that can make you sick. Vitamin D is also important in ensuring bones can absorb the calcium they need to be strong and healthy.

There are two kinds of vitamin D: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Vitamin D2 is mostly found in plants, mushrooms, and yeast. Vitamin D3 can be found in oily fish and is also made in the body during sun exposure. Additionally, vitamin D3 is later converted to 25-hydroxy-cholecalciferol, which helps turn on and off the genes that allow vitamin D to carry out its function in the body.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, foods that are good sources of vitamin D include:

  • Beef liver
  • Fortified cereal
  • Fish (such as salmon, sardines, herring, swordfish, and cod liver oil)
  • Egg yolks
  • Fortified milk and orange juice
  • Some vegetables such as kale, okra, spinach, white beans, soybeans

Your body breaks vitamin D down into its active form, called 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D — which is also known as calcitriol and can be taken as a supplement. This active form of vitamin D can affect the cells involved in the immune system.

Vitamin D and Leukemia — Is There a Link?

Vitamin D is known for its health benefits and its potentially preventative effects on several types of cancer. If you’re living with leukemia, you may wonder whether there is a link between vitamin D deficiency and the development of leukemia.

One 2017 study of people with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) found that vitamin D deficiencies were common among people with AML — and that higher vitamin D levels were linked to better leukemia outcomes.

Another study, published in 2013, found that people with acute leukemia who underwent remission-induction chemotherapy had lower levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 as compared to a control group that did not undergo treatment.

However, other studies have indicated that associations between vitamin D levels and leukemia risk or prognosis (outlook) do not prove causation. In other words, other factors besides vitamin D levels could account for the outcomes in individuals with leukemia, and there is no conclusive cause-and-effect relationship between the vitamin and the condition.

It is possible that vitamin D can play a role in leukemia risk and prognosis — but it is also important to monitor your vitamin D levels after starting treatment for leukemia, which can cause those levels to decline.

Should You Take Supplements?

Before deciding whether or not to start taking vitamin D supplements — or any supplement, for that matter — you should have a conversation with your oncologist. They can best advise you as to how vitamins may affect your specific situation.

Monitoring your vitamin D levels is only one part of your cancer care. You also should have open conversations with your doctor about any potential concerns, which is essential for ensuring you’re both on the same page about your treatment goals.

Additionally, there are potential risks associated with taking too much vitamin D. The U.S. Office of Dietary Supplements warns that too much vitamin D can cause side effects including nausea and vomiting, muscle weakness, confusion, pain, dehydration, and kidney stones. Vitamin D can also interact with some medications, so don’t start any supplementation plan before speaking with your physician.

Talk With People Who Understand

On MyLeukemiaTeam, the social network and online support group for people with leukemia and their loved ones, members discuss the chronic nature of the disease. Here, more than 11,000 members from across the world come together to ask questions, offer advice and support, and share stories with others who understand life with leukemia.

Have you ever investigated your vitamin D levels? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation on MyLeukemiaTeam.

Posted on August 2, 2021
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Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anika Brahmbhatt is an undergraduate student at Boston University, where she is pursuing a dual degree in media science and psychology. Learn more about her here.

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