Atherosclerosis Patient friendly summary

  • There are no studies linking sunlight and atherosclerosis. However, people who live in low altitudes have a higher death rate from coronary heart disease. There is less sunlight in lower altitudes.
  • Vitamin D may reduce atherosclerosis in several ways.
  • Calcium supplements may reduce the risk of hospitalization and deaths due to cardiovascular disease.

    Atherosclerosis is the build-up of fatty material along the inner walls of the arteries. This fatty material thickens and hardens. Calcium deposits are formed. These deposits (plaque) cause the arteries to narrow. This restricts blood flow.

    Atherosclerosis may affect many different organs. This includes the heart, lungs, brain, intestines, kidneys, and limbs. Reduced blood flow to the heart may cause chest pain, shortness of breath, or even a heart attack.

    Risk factors

    Risk factors for atherosclerosis include:

    • High blood pressure
    • High blood cholesterol levels
    • Diet high in fat
    • Obesity
    • Increasing age
    • Genetics
    • Smoking
    • Diabetes
    • Heavy alcohol use

    Sunlight exposure and atherosclerosis risk

    There are no reported papers linking atherosclerosis and sunlight. However, two U.S. studies found higher death rates from coronary heart disease (CHD) at lower altitudes. Atherosclerosis is a prime risk factor for CHD. There is less sunlight at lower altitudes. The studies also associate vitamin D to reduced CHD risk. Thus sunlight may be indirectly connected to lower risk of atherosclerosis.

    Vitamin D and atherosclerosis

    People with osteoporosis (loss of bone tissue) often have atherosclerosis. There is strong evidence that vitamin D lowers the risk of osteoporosis. Low vitamin D levels may also increase the risk of coronary artery hardening. This is a common feature of atherosclerosis. Therefore, vitamin D may benefit people with atherosclerosis.

    Vitamin D levels

    There are published studies of vitamin D levels and the risk of cardiovascular disease. Vitamin D levels greater than 30–40 ng/mL (75–100 nmol/L) may lower atherosclerosis risk. If this disorder reaches advanced stages, a physician should be consulted.

    How vitamin D works

    Vitamin D may reduce atherosclerosis in several ways:

    • Reduces inflammation: Vitamin D shifts cytokine (protein) production away from inflammation. Internal swelling causes plaque lesions to develop.
    • Reduces matrix metalloproteinases: These enzymes damage blood vessel tissues.
    • Controls gene expression: Vitamin D activates vitamin D receptors to help turn genes on or off. This may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and vessel hardening.


    From studies, it appears that high vitamin D levels lower cardiovascular disease. Higher vitamin D levels may also significantly reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. According to a review of several observational studies, vitamin D levels of 30-40 ng/mL (75–100 nmol/L) may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by 25% compared to levels below 10 ng/mL (25 nmol/L). Thus, to reduce atherosclerosis risk, it may be beneficial to keep vitamin D levels above 30–40 ng/mL (75–100 nmol/L).

    Vitamin D and calcium

    Calcium supplements may reduce hospitalizations and death in patients with cardiovascular disease. In one study of elderly women, calcium supplements of 1200 mg/day did not increase the risk of atherosclerosis.


    Vitamin D and calcium supplements may help reduce the progression of low-to-moderate atherosclerosis. It is not clear, however, if vitamin D benefits advanced atherosclerosis.

    Find out more...

    We will be adding a detailed evidence summary on this topic in the near future.  Please check back soon to find out more.

    Page last edited: 17 May 2011