Category: Science

The Vitamin That May Save Your Brain

We’ve certainly learned a lot more about the health benefits of vitamin D over the past decade. While it’s long been recognized that vitamin D is important for strong and healthy bones, it’s role in health and longevity is now recognized as casting a very wide net.

Over the past several years, vitamin D deficiency has been associated with increased risk for such brain-related disorders as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, autism, and even dementia. With reference to the latter, a new study published in the journal Neurology, correlated low levels of vitamin D to increased risk of developing dementia to a far greater degree then anyone had predicted.

The study represents a collaboration of multiple highly respected institutions around the world and evaluated a group of 1,658 elderly individuals who did not have dementia, and measured their vitamin D levels. The average follow-up was about 5 ½ years. Of this group, 171 participants developed dementia, and of those, 102 had full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. When the data was evaluated, the correlation of low vitamin D level to risk of developing dementia was profound. Even having a moderate deficiency of vitamin D was associated with a 53% increased risk of developing dementia of any kind. Those who were “severely deficient” were found to have an increased risk of dementia by 122%.

Dr. David Llewellyn of the University of Exeter Medical School, lead author of the study said in an interview for ScienceDaily:

We expected to find an association between low vitamin D levels and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but the results were surprising – we actually found that the association was twice as strong as we anticipated… our findings are very encouraging, and even if a small number of people could benefit, this would have enormous public-health implications given the devastating and costly nature of dementia.

The implications of this study are profound. There are more than 5.4 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and it has been estimated that there are 44 million cases worldwide. Even more compelling is the statistic indicating that about 1 billion people worldwide are thought to have low vitamin D levels, which, according to this report, places them at substantially increased risk for dementia, and specifically Alzheimer’s disease. This takes us to a place of preventive medicine as it relates to dementia and, specifically, Alzheimer’s disease. This is a disease for which there is currently no meaningful treatment, and yet, it looks like low vitamin D status plays a major role in increasing a person’s risk.

Vitamin D supplementation has long been one of my top recommendations for patients in my clinical practice, for a number of reasons. This new and empowering science lends further support not only for screening patients for low vitamin D status, but also for incorporating vitamin D into the protocols for preserving brain health in people of all ages.

For more information, order your copy of The Grain Brain Cookbook today and join Dr. Perlmutter’s email list.

  • Aron

    Dr. Perlmutter, this is a bit off the subject of Vitamin D but I would like to know what you think about Dr. Fuhrman’s diet plan. As far as I can tell, it excludes most fat except that which is found in nuts. The salad dressings are oil free. He recommends meat sparingly (a little on a salad) and, to me, he speaks about getting rid of fat as the “end all, be all”. If a person were to continue with his diet plan after having lost the desired weight, where will that person get the fat so necessary for the brain, etc.?

    • zcos

      That sounds like a biased and ambiguous claim by the doctor. Nuts have a whole variety of different ratios of oils with some having saturated fats, some monounsatutated and others with higher levels of polyunsaturated. Some have high omega 3 and others have higher omega 6. So eating nuts provides a whole slough of fats as well as a variety of other nutrients. Wile eating nuts is a good idea, avoiding other foods that contain fats is a bad idea, in general. Avoiding BAD fats, on the other hand is essential. Eating good healthy fats from any source is essential to healthy eating choices. Easily more than half your calories should come from healthy fats. Think avocado, organic butter, olive oil, grass fed meat fats, coconut oil, and yes nuts..

    • Marlene

      Thank you for asking this Aron. I’ve been wrestling with this for months and, although many aspects are parallel, I don’t think the two diets can be reconciled. Dr. Fuhrman excludes even olive oil which appear to be the same quality fat as that in nuts and avocados (unprocessed and derived from an acceptable food) . The other aspect on which the two doctors diverge is carbohydrates. Dr. Fuhrman includes unlimited fruit and grains, albeit carbs with a lower glycemic index, but he doesn’t mention glutens. He also excludes even eggs which have good cholesterol (I’ve believed this for many years); perhaps Dr. Furhman’s research is not as current. As between the two, I prefer to feed my brain and flush bad cholesterol out of my arteries.

    • Sandra

      I’ve been following Dr. Fuhrman’s nutritarian diet plan for many years, and can swear by the G-BOMBS approach to eating nutrient dense foods. I think he is right about olive oil, since it is refined and processed. There is good science to back up that up. You can certainly eat food with a little bit of healthy oil in it, as long as you get most of your oils from whole foods, in my opinion. The small amount of beans and grains like quinoa or amaranth that I eat on this plan don’t seem to be a huge deviation from Dr. Perlmutter’s advice. I’m talking about a half cup of black beans and a third cup of pecans or walnuts with my huge spinach/kale salad every day, with a quarter cup of quinoa sprinkled over it, and that’s it.

      Before learning about Dr. Perlmutter’s Grain Brain theory, I had already been eating about 5-6 avocados a week, taking 1-2 tablespoons of coconut oil daily, eating coconut butter, using coconut milk in recipes, using flax seed oil in salad dressings, fermenting vegetables (especially tempeh for B vitamins), and taking Krill Oil supplements, while maintaining a mostly vegan diet. I’m very interested in how Dr. Perlmutter’s research can enhance my understanding of what constitutes an optimal human diet, but it will take an army of bulldozers to convince me I really need milk, eggs, or meat to complete my transformation. I subscribe to the gathering hypothesis of the human biological survival imperative.

      I completely agree with Dr. Perlmutter’s theory about “the grain brain”, and Dr. Fuhrman’s plan limits gluten containing foods and eliminates all processed foods, it just has a different disease focus. Dr. Perlmutter’s focus appears to be mostly on neurological disease, while Dr. Furhman’s appears more encompassing (to me). I’m not comparing these as two side-by-side dietary plans, because I’m not into “diets”, but just wanted to give my perspective as a long-time “nutritarian” who follows research and knowledge and ultimately makes her own decision–after doing a reality check on Dr. Mercola’s website (wink). After all, it was Dr. Mercola who clued me into Dr. Perlmutter, and I’m very happy to be learning so much. I’ve even been convinced to give up my weekly tofu ration.

      • Vicky Garcia

        What is the olive oil dilemma? Can you explain?

        • Cherryl

          Olive oil is not really all that healthy, nor should you cook with it. In moderation, it is probably fine on your salad. Also, the olive oil you buy may be adulterated. I buy California olive oil and keep it in the refrigerator. You should look up “olive oil dilemna” and read some articles. Look at the Pritikin article, for one.

    • Kellyboat

      I did follow his plan for while before I found that ketogenic diets work better for me. Maybe it’s just my body, but his plan had too much fiber in it to really help me. His idea is that fiber fills you up so you’ll never be hungry. Okay, but then it’s a limited diet that focuses on food that, using any nutritional yardstick, contains filler foods without the highest nutrition. I think he has redefined fiber as a “nutrient” instead of a bulking agent and that’s how he cheats. The highest nutrition is found in animal foods and very very fresh vegetables and fruits. Grains and legumes must be processed via fermentation or soaking (even nuts are soaked in some diet systems, I assume to get rid of the phytates). That’s not to say they’re “bad” foods but they take coddling to make nutritious. I happen to love legumes so I coddle them quite a bit. But for the “fast paced” life, that’s not likely to be practical. If you did want to make his diet work, you’d develop a pescatarian attitude with a strong fish focus, and then add only fermented legumes and grains, garnished with plenty of nuts and seeds. You could cheat a little by eating canned legumes only, but that doesn’t fully destroy all the bad things, and doesn’t give you probiotics to deal with the future intake of cellulose and plant foods. Personally I’d keep the eggs, no matter what he says. You know that part of his book that starts “What if all americans…” and follows with a list of behaviors he considers positive? My answer to that is “then we’d all have IBS.”

    • davidthornton

      You answered all your own questions regarding Fuhrman’s diet.. it is the complete opposite of a ketogenic diet (high fat, low carbs, low moderate protein)

      It is not an appropriate diet as supported by the research..

      The only fat that needs to be avoided is the vegetable oils of any kind (soy, canola, sunflower, corn, etc).

      Healthy oils from animals such as fish, grass fed cow butter, ghee, animal tallows, and plant-based such as
      from nuts/seeds, coconut, red palm, avocado and olive can be consumed rather freely. (A typical ketogenic diet is 80-15-5% ratio of fat, protein, carbs)..

  • Victorious

    I am currently reading Grain Brain and it basically says that low fat and no fat diets starve our brains of very important brain food.

    • Lynn Dell

      Exactly right. But it has to be the right kinds of fats, such as olive, coconut, avocado oils, and needs to get as close to the proper omega 6 to omega 3 as possible. And no trans fats. If meat is consumed, it should be organic and grass fed, or wild caught. I have been following this diet for less than a year and have lost weight and joint pain. It has lowered my pre diabetic numbers to what is considered normal. It’s a great plan for many aspects of health, including the brain!

  • mary

    How much and what kind of d should I take?

    • zcos

      If you have healthy cholesterol levels, and by that I mean not suppressed with medication or poor nutrition, about 10 minutes of sunshine on your skin daily will produce about 10,000 iu of Vitamin D. But many people don’t get enough sun or can’t get enough sun. so if you want to supplement consider vitamin D3 5000 units a day for a month and then every other day. What do you think Dr. Perlmutter?

    • David Perlmutter

      Start with 5000mg of D3 daily, and adjust from there. Consider my Empowering D3: http://store.drperlmutter.com/collections/individual-supplements/products/empowering-d3-new

      • Hi Dr Perlmutter, thank you so much for writing Grain Brain. I’ve been following your advice for a couple of months now and feel much better with lots more energy!
        I am a 60 year old woman, 5 feet tall and weigh 103 pounds do I need to take your reccomended doses of supplements or should I scale down a bit, in other words, are the dossages you suggest one size fits all? Many thanks

        • David Perlmutter

          They are meant to help you hit a target range. Consider getting a simple blood test to measure your current number.

  • Janknitz

    Please tell us what you consider optimal Vitamin D levels?

    • David Perlmutter

      Optimal range is around 80 ng/mL.

      • Steven Weil

        Dr. Perlmutter, do you have any citations for 80 ng/mL

        • Mary

          Check out the recommendations of the Vitamin D Council. They are also strong advocates of adequate levels.

          • Steven Weil

            Thanks, Mary. They Rx more than 30 ng/mL, my concern is that there is a bell shaped curve for most if not all nutrients, so at some point there can be toxic effects or taking high doses of Vitamin D can interact with other fat soluble vitamins like K, A and E. This might interfere with their absorption and therefore their blood and tissue levels.

      • Janknitz

        Thank you. Kaiser Permanente says 30 is “normal” and will not test my levels anymore since my D levels were 40–over their recommended range. Sigh . . .

  • Vic

    If you supplement D3, do you recommend any additional supplements along with it such as K2 or calcium?

    • Dee

      I havehad background headaches for 3 days and started taking Vit D one week ago so am assuming that is the reason why. I’ve heard it’s due to magnesium deficiency and both should be taken. Any advice?

  • Jennifer D

    Dr. Perlmutter – what do you feel is the recommended level to have. I have read recently 30-50? Mine was 16 and is now 67. Since vitamin D is a hormone and a vitamin, how does that factor in to the level people should have?

    • Jeffrey Howarth

      16 is about 50% too low. Your doctor can give you a prescription for the vitamin to bring it up. It’s a large dose capsule you take once a week.

      • No need for a script… D3 is available over the counter everywhere…

        • Jeffrey Howarth

          Not at prescription doses. 50,000 UN of D2 once a week.

          • Nonsense… I take 30-60,000 IU/DAY… and, as Dr. Perlmutter already pointed out, D3 is the form you want, NOT D2…

    • David Perlmutter

      Optimal range is around 80 ng/mL.

    • Empower Your Healing

      I used to read studies at a major cancer hospital. I never saw a normal Vitamin D level in a newly diagnosed cancer patient. Most levels were in the teens.

  • Wil Bremers

    Correlation is not the same as causation. If you would look at people with an adequate level of vitamin D what percentage gets dementia? And those who got supplemetal vitamin D: what percentage gets dementia?

    • Kellyboat

      There are a lot of confounders possible in the type of research you suggest. You’d need a random sample of average people, keep some as a control group, then track not only added vitamin D but also sun exposure. Meanwhile some of the subjects are succumbing to dementia so you get inaccurate answers. Best way to reduce this effect is to track only blood levels of Vitamin D, regardless of how they got the vitamin in them. What I’d also like to see is a study of people who already have dementia, and the effect of giving vitamin D to them at various IU levels, and with or without secondary vitamins (with magnesium? with K2? with both? what if they just get a program of sun or sun-lamp exposure?…)

  • Desiree Hoover

    I just got my lab work back. I upped my Vitamin D supplement to 8,000/day and it brought it up. (: Thanks for reading the Grain Brain! My Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy total went from under 30 and now is 58 ng/mL. The lab chart says the normal is >=30 (30 or over). Is this 58 a good level? Or should it be higher? I still am having brain fog.

    • Desiree Hoover

      I just read down the other feedbacks, you responded “Optimal range is around 80 ng/mL.” I’ll try to up it a bit more. I live in Kauai so I will try to stay in the sun a bit more. I do get pre-skin cancer and once squamis carcinoma so I do limit my sun intake as well. Thanks for all your help Dr. Perlmutter! I will try to get more committed to my Grain Brain diet too…

      • Empower Your Healing

        Do you take vitamin K2? Vit. D at the higher levels increases a protein that then needs to be activated by K2. It’s a good protein which cleans calcium out of soft tissues and arteries. Unless you eat Natto in its raw form, you need this vitamin to enable the proteins to function. It is mentioned in Grain Brain.

      • Empower Your Healing

        Speaking of skin cancer, are you aware of Astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant for skin?

    • Debbie

      How are your Vitamin B12 levels? I had a lot of brain fog also even with my taking the Vitamin D3 and reaching a high level, then discovered that I needed B12 shots as I was low in this vitamin. I now have no brain fog and feel so much better.

  • Holly

    Dr Perlmutter – if you have been diagnosed with early onset dementia and you have increased your vitamin D intake, will it help to halt the progression of the disease? Thanks for your comments.

    • David Perlmutter

      It’s certainly a part of the lifestyle plan we put patients at our clinic on.

  • Steve

    I know from reading your book that you recommend taking 5000IU per day. However, my nurse wife says that it possible to overdose on vitamin D. Do you think there harmful effects from excessive amounts of it?

  • Leisha

    How much vitamin D should adults have daily? And what about children?

    • David Perlmutter

      I advise 5000mg/day until your average levels out around 80ng/mL.

    • Empower Your Healing

      start with the 25 Hydroxy Vit. D blood test, to determine your baseline.

  • David Perlmutter

    So everyone knows, there isn’t a specific “correct” dosage of vitamin D. Rather, the dosage should be adjusted to achieve an optimal blood level, around 70=80 ng/ml.This often requires a dosage of 5000 IU of D3 or more. Take advantage of the simple blood test.

  • Heather Heaps

    Hello. My doctor has had me take Vitamin D2 for several years now but my insurance cut me off as it can be over the counter. All I can find is D3. What is the difference between the two? Heather

  • sue

    What is causing vit.D deficiency? Melanoma is said to be on the rise which I thought was sun exposure related and where we get our vit.D I thought. Recently I read that a chemical in Roundup interferes with the absorption of vit. D. Could something besides lack of sun exposure be causing vit. D deficiency? The elderly probably don’t get enough sun though.

    • Empower Your Healing

      An excellent reason to work on the anti-inflammatory Paleo diet espoused by Dr. Perlmutter. Remember, all aspects of the Standard American Diet are highly inflammatory, and inflammation is the root cause of dementia, and cancer, as well as heart disease, and diabetes.

  • David Putnam

    Dr. Perlmutter, I believe the # of participants in the study was 1,658, not 658 as your article highlights?

  • Victorious

    That’s great to hear Lynn. I am working on my diet and have lost 6 lbs in 2 weeks.

  • John Brailsford

    I read studies showing that the ability to generate natural vitamin D from the sun requires good magnesium levels in the blood. I regularly use transdermal magnesium and my D level was 65 ng/ml on the last check, just from the sun without supplimentation. For skin repair it is recommended to suppliment with vitamins B12, folic acid,a & e.

  • Alfonso

    I have a problem with osteoporosis poorly responding to Vit D, Ca and yearly iv reclast. Could this be to the fact that I take lipitor and zetia prescribed to keep my LD Cholesterol as low as possible. Do you suggest stopping this treatment?

    • Kellyboat

      I can’t speak to anybody’s treatment plan, that’s between you and your doctor. But I can point out that Strontium is the forgotten vitamin/mineral for bones. If you look it up in PubMed, maybe it will be of some help to you.

      • KB, one must be VERY careful with strontium…

        • Kellyboat

          You should explain why, otherwise it’s just a scare tactic.

  • Kellyboat

    My husband and I have embraced the Vitamin D messages we’ve been reading over the last few years. We have found that our skin-limit is around 1-2 hours in the sun without sunscreen. After that, we go for sunblock. We also have individual differences. His more Scottish-Irish skin is closer to 1 hr 15 min, and mine which is more Mediterranean European can stand around 2 hours when we start the summer season. The rest of the summer the tolerance goes up somewhat as melanin is produced. When I was a kid, I could be out there nearly 5 hours and not get burned (I would count 4 hours and then put on a light sunscreen, spf 8, if I still wanted to stay outside). I never used sunblock as a child, not once. If I spent a day at the beach, I used spf 4. I got sunburn maybe 5 or 6 times in my whole life. When we went to the Caribbean, my husband and Ispent time in tanning salons “getting ready” and it paid off, not one sunburn, despite hours spent without sunblock. We used sunblock only on side trips when we didn’t know the itinerary of our day, and not before we went outside, about 1 hour afterward. So far so good and I see no reason to change it, I’m already past middle age. If it was that dangerous, then dock workers would have the highest incidence of skin cancer, and I don’t see research about that.

    • Lesley Standridge

      Sunscreen is the key answer to this, about the dock workers. Sunscreen is no good for anyone, but everyone uses it to keep from being sunburned. They suggest that you spend 10-15 min. a day before 11 am and after 4 pm.

  • Kellyboat

    Thank you for clarifying that, Dr. Perlmutter. Many years ago my doctor diagnosed low Vitamin D for me, which was a surprise, but it also pointed out how much more sedentary I had become. He prescribed 25K IU of D2 once a week. So now that I know a bit more, I take 5000 or 10K IU D3 every day or every other day during the winter months. I make a special effort to get in the sun and spend time outside in the summer. Fresh air and sunshine are excellent healers.

  • Julie

    I have had M.S. for 26 years and I have no symptoms right now. I learned early on what vitamins to take and what diet to follow. I also take the medication copaxone, but it has been a hard road trying to take care of myself. I find that people are very resistant to eating right and exercising being a woman I seem to find more resistance I find that my husband does not agree with my eating and exercising regimen. I feel that I get a lot of flack just for trying to take care of myself.. I read the grain brain and felt very inspired by it..

  • Coco

    Dr. P – I have MS and most of my lesions are in my spinal cord. Does everything you say about brain health transfer to spinal cord health?

  • Jenny

    I have Factor 5 ( a genetic blood clotting disorder. I recently found out when I was in hospital with blood clots in my lungs. I take vitamin D every day but I had to get off of vitamin K. What can I take with the vitamin D to be sure it doesn’t calcify?

  • Pingback: Be Well: Vitamin D – Strong Body, Strong Mind | Lake Pointe Chiropractic()

  • Amar

    Dear Dr. Perlmutter,
    I was wondering if I need to take vitamin D if I get adequate sun each day and how many minutes adequate sun would be. In addition, if I take vitamin D would it be better to take one capsule a month or multiple capsules (say 4 times a month) of equal total concentration. I was also wondering your recommended dosage. I have heard everything from 50000IU a month to 50000IU a week. Is it also possible that too much vitamin D will have a negative effect. I currently live in Washington, D.C. and there is around 3-7 hours of sun a day.
    Thanks, Amar

    • David Perlmutter

      Amar: You would want to check your vitamin D levels for guidance on this. Then adjust a dosage accordingly.

      • Amar

        my current levels are 35. Do you think 50,000IU twice a month would be adequet?

  • Dave

    I live in sunny Australia, and during the summer I often find myself spending hours out in the sun. Is it still necessary to take vitamin D3 supplementation on the days when I have been at the beach all day?

  • Linda

    I have Essential Tremors, would I benefit from taking vitamin D? I take vitamin D3 twice a day already. Thanks for the advice.

  • J-Alice8

    I try to get my DD DD (depression depressing D dosage) at least twice to thrice a week by sitting in the sun on my balcony 30+/- minutes if I have not been out and about that day. Living 300 metres as the crow (or more accurately silver gull) flies from the ocean, I usually have a lovely sea breeze to keep me cool in the sun.

  • lynette mayo

    It is hard to determine our levels of vitamin d, when tested by a traditional doctor, they always say too high! do we have to get tested monthly to get it right?

  • Cathy Coyne Wehle

    Why don’t Insurance Companies pay to have your Vit D levels checked. This is infuriating. How do we get them to recognize how important this is?

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