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High doses of vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin”, may increase the risk of falls and fractures, according to new research.

Vitamin D supplements are commonly taken to strengthen bones, especially in the elderly. But a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that too much of the vitamin is actually associated with an increased number of falls.

Dr. Heike Bischoff-Ferrari, chair of geriatrics and ageing research at the University Hospital Zurich, and her colleagues studied 200 men and women (aged 70 years and older) who had already had falls.

Participants were divided into three groups. One group took 24,000 IU of vitamin D a month (which is the recommended dose for older adults in the US and other countries, but is double the UK recommended dose). Another group took 60,000 IU a month and the third group took 24,000 IU of vitamin D plus 300 micrograms of calcifediol, a form of vitamin D that is more readily available to muscle and bone.

“We expected that we would see more benefit by going to the higher doses of vitamin D,” Dr. Bischoff-Ferrari told Time magazine.

Instead, the results showed that fewer people taking the lowest dose of the vitamin had falls (about 48%) while more of those taking the two higher doses (about 66.5%) fell during the 12 months of the study.

“Contrary to expectations, we found that actually the lowest dose was the most advantageous for any of the outcomes we looked at,” Dr. Bischoff-Ferrari said.

California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute senior scientist Dr. Steven Cummings, who contributed to an accompanying editorial on the research, added: “There is belief that people should take vitamin D supplements to raise the levels in their blood to an ‘ideal´ 30 ng/mL. But a new study shows that this common practice can cause — rather than prevent — falls.”

Dr. Cummings noted that the combination of vitamin D and calcium supplements has been proven to prevent falls and fractures in older people who live in long-term care facilities or are home-bound. But for other people, there is no consistent evidence that vitamin D supplements reduce falls or fractures.

The NHS, meanwhile, said that the Swiss study provides no evidence to suggest that current UK government recommendations on vitamin D are unsafe.