New medicinesCalcium and vitamin D supplements after menopause can improve women's cholesterol levels, according to a new study by the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) in the US.

The study, published online in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS), looked at how a calcium and vitamin D supplement changed cholesterol levels and how it affected blood levels of vitamin D in postmenopausal women.

The women in the WHI CaD trial took either a supplement containing 1,000 mg of calcium and 400 IU of vitamin D3 or a placebo each day. The analysis looked at the relationship between taking supplements and levels of vitamin D and cholesterol in some 600 of the women who had their cholesterol levels and their vitamin D levels measured.

The women who took the supplement were more than twice as likely to have vitamin D levels of at least 30 ng/mL (normal according to the Institute of Medicine) as were the women who took the placebo. Supplement users also had low-density lipoprotein (LDL—the "bad" cholesterol) levels that were between 4 and 5 points lower. The researchers discovered, in addition, that among supplement users, those with higher blood levels of vitamin D had higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL—the "good" cholesterol) and lower levels of triglycerides (although for triglycerides to be lower, blood levels of vitamin D had to reach a threshold of about 15 ng/mL).

Taking the calcium and vitamin D supplements was especially helpful in raising vitamin D levels in women who were older and women who had a low intake. They also did more to raise vitamin D levels in women who did not smoke and who drank less alcohol.

Whether these positive effects of supplemental calcium and vitamin D on cholesterol will translate into benefits such as lower rates of cardiovascular disease for women after menopause has still be be identified, but according to the research, the results are a reminder that women at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency should consider taking calcium and vitamin D.